At a time when black superheroes make up a rising proportion of the superhero genre, it can be easy to forget that there was a point in history where such representation simply didn’t exist. Indeed before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby conceived the Black Panther in 1966 the superhero landscape was entirely white. While the Black Panther’s name is coincidental to, and indeed pre-dates the Black Panther Party by several months, his existence is inextricably linked with the racial climate of the time. The Party formed to challenge police brutality in Oakland, California, and just months before, Malcolm X had been assassinated. All of this happened against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement that continued to protest and fight for the rights of African Americans.
Black Panther is now on wide release in UK cinemas.
The creation of T’Challa aka Black Panther is notable as not only was he a quintessential product of his time (his fictional kingdom of Wakanda with its huge technological advancements, untouched by colonialism and prospering because of it, was far away from the realities of most African Americans in 1966), but he was also the first imposition of African American culture on what at the time was essentially a white fantasy genre. The Black Panther jars in comic lexicon because his existence is a white reproduction of a black separatist fantasy.
And over 50 years after its creation, Black Panther continues to serve a primary role as a reflection of the times. The rise and rise of Marvel Studios and the mind-boggling profitability of comic-book blockbuster movies has seen the reassertion of the genre as white, male wish-fulfilment. That is until 2014, when Marvel officially announced the Black Panther movie. The character (played by Chadwick Boseman) went on to make his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, before the release of his solo story in February 2018.
Before Black Panther, all previous 17 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been exclusively led by white men. And it won’t be until 2019, over ten years and 21 films since the universe began, that a woman will finally lead a Marvel movie.
Much has been made of Black Panther’s importance to the black community. However it could be argued that the importance of the new film to black cinema exists in a symbiotic equality with its importance to Marvel and Hollywood at large.
Black Panther is a suspiciously well-timed arrival for Marvel. With one of the most sought-after black directors working with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and an even bigger budget, it is the perfect counterweight to the aesthetic and racial hegemony of the Marvel Universe so far. And with record pre-sale tickets, it is possible that it could act as the perfect tonic to stave off the much heralded arrival of ‘superhero fatigue’.
Not that it was always such smooth sailing. Ava DuVernay was initially approached to direct the film but turned it down, citing creative differences with Marvel and its producer-president Kevin Feige, claiming “it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film”.
If the original comics were a white reproduction of a black separatist fantasy, it would be vital that bringing T’Challa’s story to the big screen be a black interpretation of that fantasy. But how genuine would that interpretation be if it had to be made under the strict conditions of a profit-driven studio? The massive amounts of money dedicated to marketing and dictating the perception of this movie raises questions about the nature of auteurship and studio influence in the film industry. Marvel have a record of hiring directors not for their unique vision but to make a film that serves the interest of the studios and producers.
Additionally, despite having a small filmography Ryan Coogler is a director seen by many to be an auteur. His heart-wrenching debut Fruitvale Station alternates between barely restrained energy and quiet, light touches of subtlety, a remarkable feat for one so young. Maintaining that momentum going into Creed, with a larger production and already established universe, didn’t faze him. If anything his filmmaking became even more polished, while still holding on to the heart and humanity of his leading characters.
Still, financially and culturally this is the biggest movie he has ever done. And to ensure the success of the film many aspects of it had been taken out of his hands before it had even hit the big screen. Marvel has engineered the popular perception of Black Panther, defining the film before many have even had the chance to see it. With the help of a few well-placed articles and reviews, conversation around the film has revolved around representation, inclusivity and many aspects of black apprehension and hurt at the historical under-representation of black people in cinema, coalescing into the mobilisation of what is now an over-represented segment of cinema-goers. It also deviates from Marvel’s usual strategy of summer releases, becoming the studio’s first film to be released in February, happily coinciding with Black History Month in America.
Black Panther is a well-made, well-executed movie. The film picks up where we previously left T’Challa (Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. His father King T’Chaka is dead and T’Challa must take the throne of Wakanda and lead his people. The Wakanda of Black Panther is vibrant and restless with energy and life. It thrives because of Vibranium, a precious metal which fell as a meteorite to Wakanda centuries ago and has since made it one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the Marvel Universe. Yet to the outside world Wakanda is a peaceful rural country with rich farmland and not much else. Among the select few who know otherwise is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer who years ago stole Vibranium with the help of King T’Chaka’s brother. Klaue teams up with the estranged son of the latter, Erik Kilmonger (Michael B Jordan), in order to obtain more of the precious metal.
The aesthetic of Wakanda is the first opportunity that the film has to make good on its supposed importance to the black community. For all the platitudes about Black Panther’s release being a defining moment for black America to ring true, Wakanda has to look and feel like the nebulous idea of the black utopia that nestles unformed in the small spaces deep down in the black consciousness. This is a contradiction that isn’t and perhaps cannot be fully explored, but the lush Afro-futuristic world that Coogler depicts is satisfying enough, and there is a heft to Wakanda in a way that perhaps no other secondary world in Marvel possesses.
The theme of duality, of rural life and huge technological advancements that underpins the impossibility that is Wakanda, runs through the film like a current, and each stream is brought to a satisfying conclusion. The chemistry between T’Challa, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is electric and propels the movie at every turn. As T’Challa struggles with sharing the considerable resources of Wakanda with the continent of Africa and the black population in the wider world, and what that would mean for the safety of his nation, Killmonger challenges him for the right to the throne.
Coogler’s direction is incredibly assured for a filmmaker on just his third feature, and the film’s casting (by Sarah Finn) is inspired, especially in the case of Jordan as Killmonger. Killmonger is compelling because he strikes at the deep-seated fears T’Challa harbours and his words have the ring of truth. There are some impressive set pieces including a ‘one take’ fight scene in a casino (not dissimilar to another ‘oner’ used by Coogler in Creed – the technique is quickly becoming a staple of the director’s work), a memorable car chase through the streets of South Korea and some impressive work by the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan royal guard.
However the film sticks pretty closely to Marvel’s tried and tested formula and, like Thor: Ragnarok before it, is a little disappointing when the engaging and careful storytelling of the first two acts is sacrificed in favour of the big CGI action finale.
Coogler navigates this as best as he can, and does an impressive job of helping the audience keep track of the various characters even in the melee of combat. He manages to find a balance between stylishly choreographed fight scenes and keeping the stakes real, while retaining that rich vein of unrestrained energy that was on display in Creed. But the devolution of the third act serves as a jarring reminder that Black Panther’s primary purpose is as a vehicle existing to further its parent franchise and drive Marvel’s less than diverse executive branch to more profit.
Ryan Coogler’s vision remains true to the story of the Black Panther and is a confident take on a hero that begun as a skewed appropriation of the white, male-dominated genre. However Black Panther is the exception and not the rule when it comes to black films in Hollywood: very few are afforded budget and studio support to this extent. It remains to be seen whether the film is the triumph for diversity and representation it initially appears to be, and future industry support for the work of black filmmakers and writers will prove whether or not Black Panther was just another placating gesture in order to preserve and extend the status quo that exists in the film industry.