Marvel Studios has a diversity problem. While I’m personally a big fan of the (admittedly sometimes formulaic) money printers that Kevin Feige and co. have masterminded over the last decade, representation is absolutely crucial, and it’s here that Marvel is slipping. Women and people of colour were something of a non-entity in the early MCU films, and while there has been a general attempt to increase diversity, non-white demographics have mostly been in supporting roles. This state of affairs all stands to change with the release of Black Panther in 2018.
Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring a mostly black cast, Black Panther finally presents a film for black children everywhere to call their own. T’Challa isn’t just some sidekick or costumed quip machine; he’s a king, dammit, and Captain America: Civil War did a fantastic job of making him stand apart from the Avengers in this way. Chadwick Boseman’s Panther is focused, ruthless, and extremely formidable throughout the film. Instead of choosing any side, he instead pursues his own agenda of vengeance for his dead father King T’Chaka.
He brings with him the first glimpse of his fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is decidedly different to any kind of depicted fictional African country I have ever seen on film. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby designed Wakanda to defy the image of the third-world African country, choosing instead to create a paradise that was a perfect symbiosis of nature, tradition and technology. Wakanda isn’t just the most sophisticated country in Africa, but in all of Marvel Comics.
Furthermore, ‘Black Panther’ is an ancestral title only afforded those deemed worthy; the story of T’Challa is often one of responsibility. This is not simply the responsibility to act, in the same sense as Spider-Man, but instead a grander responsibility – a responsibility to your people. This also can be seen in the most recent volume of Black Panther. Written by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the story takes a complicated approach to politics in comparison to most Marvel comics. At the beginning of the ongoing arc, T’Challa is questioning his responsibilities and his ability to carry them out among a civilian uprising in Wakanda, rooted in dissatisfaction and born out of violence.
With their proud promotion of the new run and its writer, Marvel Comics seems wiser to the importance of diversity and representation, both in creator and creation, than its film studio. New characters are at the forefront, such as Ms. Marvel (Marvel’s first Islamic superhero) and Miles Morales (a teenage, Hispanic and African American Spider-Man) – as well as new iterations of ‘legacy’ heroes. The mantles of Thor and Captain America have since been picked up respectively by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character from the films) and Sam Wilson, formerly known as the Falcon.
Considering the constant theme of this grand responsibility in stories featuring Black Panther, it’s appropriate that his first film is shouldering the responsibility of being the first Marvel film to feature a black protagonist. Both an obscure character that carries a lot of weight within Marvel Comics, and a totally different type of hero compared to those often shown onscreen, the success of Black Panther is crucial. It’s a relief then that Feige has handed directing and writing over to Ryan Coogler, the writer and director of Creed and Fruitvale Station. These are two films that have questions and images of blackness at their core. While Fruitvale Station directly tackles reality, Creed is more of a story of empowerment through fiction – Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed already comes from a background of wealth, and then creates a name for himself, independent of his father’s legacy.
The film is peppered with images of black culture, from Bianca’s braided hair to the restaurants of Philadelphia, and the soundtrack is made up of a combination of Ludwig Göransson’s score and a wealth of hip-hop. Coogler has shown his skill at creating films that are both very personal for black audiences whilst not excluding others; Creed in particular is an apt example. It helps that not only was Creed in touch with African American culture in Philadelphia, but generally just extremely thrilling and moving. Coogler gave us tense, expertly staged fights (the best of which is shot in one unbroken take) and phenomenal performances from all involved.
If Creed, Civil War, the cast and crew, and the legacy of Black Panther himself is any suggestion of what’s to come, Black Panther could be extremely special. It boasts a unique hero, and what could be the beginning of the end of Marvel Studios’ diversity problem. With Marvel the powerhouse that it is, Black Panther may even be crucial in leading a push for stronger diversity across Hollywood. Along with Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment’s upcoming Wonder Woman and the recent backlash at the whitewashing of Hollywood, big changes appear to be on the horizon.