The eighteenth Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Black Panther, recently opened globally to rave reviews. The hype train left the station months ago, with news of ticket pre-sales being through the roof, but it’s continued to gain momentum, breaking all sorts of box-office records and dominating the current pop cultural conversation. Make no bones about it, Black Panther is a big deal.
However, there seems to be a subset of moviegoers perplexed by the whole phenomenon. On one of my ill-advised clicks around YouTube, I stumbled across critic ralphthemoviemaker and his take on the Black Panther. My thoughts on his review aside, Ralph prefaces the whole thing with a piece to camera about how he doesn’t get the media circus surrounding the movie and how it should be “just another Marvel movie”. This isn’t a slight against the man or his channel, but it did irk me to see a bunch of comments echoing similar sentiments and the fact that the video is, at time of writing, #30 on the YouTube trending list.
I’m not going to pretend to know all the cultural ins and outs of this, nor that I’m the most qualified person to talk about the subject. However, here’s what I’ve been able to glean from reading relevant things- y’know- the thing you do when you want to find out something on the Internet. A quick Google of this very article’s title will give you a ton of results that can help to explain the situation.
Starting with the Marvel side of things first, Black Panther was introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa had a strong introduction into the wider Marvel world and ended up stealing scenes, despite the fact that this was the movie that the ever-popular Spider-Man returned home after a terrible time with foster parents Sony. One of Marvel’s key strengths is in creating characters people actually like and want to see more of. Black Panther is every bit that and after a stonking debut and a tease of the futuristic Wakanda, audiences were more than set for the next chapter.
Let’s get that “not the first black superhero movie” stuff out of the way. As tons of sites armed with only the hottest of takes will inform you, Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero movie- not by a long shot. If we’re being pedantic, the first black superhero movie was 1977’s Abar, The First Black Superman. Then we have flicks like Spawn, Blankman, The Meteor Man, Steel, Hancock and the Blade trilogy. Oh, how there are enough sites needlessly reminding us that Blade was a thing. I certainly don’t need my memory jogged. The first two movies rock the shit. Blade: Trinity can fuck off.
As some of the smugger sites have pointed out, Black Panther isn’t even the first black hero in the MCU, with Nick Fury, Falcon, War Machine, Valkyrie and Heimdall begging to differ (and Luke Cage, but he isn’t in the movies). That’s great, but we can’t escape the fact that all these parts are supporting roles. Sam Wilson and James Rhodes are basically sidekicks for Captain America and Iron Man respectively. I love both heroes, but their secondary nature is baked into their characters. There are two moments in the movies that call attention to this. Remember Falcon’s line in Winter Soldier? “I do what he (Cap) does, just slower.” Then there’s also Rhodey failing to impress Thor and Tony Stark with a War Machine story in Age of Ultron
Here’s the crux of the matter. Black Panther is the first black lead superhero in this generation of superhero movies. The cast is packed full of black talent taking on substantial roles. It’s co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler, considered to be one of the best African-American directors to come up in recent years. Wesley Snipes’ Blade was awesome and was a proper step in the right direction, but a little thing like the MCU becoming the highest grossing movie franchise of all time has happened in the years since. Like it or not, Disney’s various branches are crushing at the box-office and driving current pop culture. Even the lowest grossing MCU movie, The Incredible Hulk, earned way more than the second and double what the first Blade made at the box office. These films are on a whole other level to where we were in the late ’90s/early 2000s. The landscape has changed. Granted, the first two Blades were R-rated, meaning a significantly smaller potential audience, but that leads me into my next point.
We have to be able to relate to our heroes on some level in order to care about them. We all have different ways into a character, and our favourites tend to reflect an aspect we either possess or aspire to in some way, especially when we’re children. It’s no different with Black Panther. There’s going to be an entire generation of kids who are attracted to the movies because the big badass hero looks like them. I honestly don’t see how this could be anything but a positive thing.
Representation is important to a lot of people. As a straight white dude, shit’s been catered to me for decades, so I’m on the inside of the bubble attempting to look out. Diversity in movies, tv shows and video games has become a recurring issue and it’s mattering to a growing number of people. Most reasonable folk see no problem with an added number of movie characters of all skin tones, genders, sexualities etc. Variety is the spice of life after all and redressing the balance of years of movies featuring straight white dudes doing shit doesn’t strike me as a bad idea in the slightest.
Black Panther isn’t just representative. It’s a celebration of African culture on a scale that we don’t normally see. Yes, Wakanda is fictional, but many of the movie’s fantastical costumes, designs and customs are drawn from real cultural sources. Some of the movie’s more predominant themes are about black identity, oppression and heritage and it’s great that a movie as big as this can have these kinds of discussions. You can be as cynical as you want, but this is clearly striking a chord with people if videos like this one, showing a bunch of South African moviegoers joyfully dancing after seeing the movie, exist.
Box office takings dominate most movie news and the fact that Black Panther, a movie with a predominantly black cast and crew, is doing so well globally is cause for celebration too. Other studios are going to take note of all the attention Black Panther is getting (and more importantly) the money it’s making and may shift focus into creating more diverse movies in general. It certainly puts paid to the Hollywood myth that black movies don’t travel, so we can expect to see less of that reasoning in the future.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the whole thing and there are way more qualified people than me out there talking about this. This is all basic stuff, but if YouTube videos, Facebook comments and the like are to be believed there are a lot of people who are confused by it. In an age when you can literally type a question into a search engine and get all the information you could ever want in order to formulate your own answer, this just seems like willful ignorance to me. Plus, I think if you have an audience, you owe them the most informed take possible on whatever you’re talking about.
I really enjoyed the movie too, by the way, but after all the things the movie has achieved and will accomplish, that just seems like an added bonus at this point.