‘Black Panther’ brings comics’ first black superhero to the big screen
Humanity began in Africa and so we are all ultimately Africans, one character suggests in “Black Panther,” opening Friday, Feb. 16, the next installment of Marvel Studios’ elongated epic of serialized films. Starring the character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 — comics’ first black superhero — the film takes place almost entirely in Africa with an almost entirely black cast, pitting the king of a hidden technological wonderland against an anti-imperialist revolutionary with apocalyptic aims.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) demurs when asked about the explicitly political conflict between T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), king of Wakanda, and Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the usurper who would use the nation’s next-gen defensive weapons to conquer pretty much everything that isn’t Africa. “We wanted to make a conflict that was interesting, that played on the themes in the film,” Coogler says, choosing his words carefully, while speaking by phone from Los Angeles.
It’s hard to fault his caution, given that a Facebook group moderated by a self-described member of the white nationalist “alt-right” staged a campaign to lower the film’s Rotten Tomatoes audience rating. Rotten Tomatoes has since blocked the group, saying in a statement, “While we respect our fans’ diverse opinions, we do not condone hate speech.”
The film itself is anything but cautious. Following the events of “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), in which T’Challa becomes king when his father is killed, “Black Panther” finds the new monarch attempting to intercept a sale of vibranium, a miraculous metal found only in his country. In his ceremonial superhero guise (the result of a shamanistic ritual that gives him panther-like enhanced strength and agility), he ventures to South Korea with his military chief, Gen. Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his top spy and ex-lover, Nakia (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), with remote support by his sister and chief scientist, Shuri (breakout star Letitia Wright). His confrontation with South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (a scene-stealing Andy Serkis, reprising his role from 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) and CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, from “CA: Civil War”) helps set off a chain of events that eventually puts Killmonger in power.
“The spectrum of action, and the way it speaks thematically on politics, religion, the relationship between men and women, and all the other things . . . [Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole] put in there — it’s great,” says Don McGregor, who with artist Rich Buckler created Killmonger and many of Wakanda’s locales in Marvel Comics’ 1970s Black Panther series. “What I always saw about T’Challa is the quiet dignity he has, and the burden of leadership. He’s a king, he can do anything he wants, and he wants to represent his people as best he can. I think that’s why . . . [audiences] love the character, because don’t we wish we had leaders who cared about all the people in the country without it being at some people’s expense?”
“In the [comic-book] canon, his victories always come at a personal cost, yet he consistently chooses the greater good,” says co-screenwriter Cole. “His nobility, and the idea of someone willing to sacrifice for someone who may not even deserve it because it’s the right thing to do — that really attracted me to him.”
Cole, a member of a Marvel writers program that recruits playwrights and filmmakers, got the script assignment in October 2015. Coogler signed on three months later after Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “A Wrinkle in Time”) dropped out of talks to direct — telling Essence magazine, “Marvel has a certain way of doing things . . . and we just didn’t see eye to eye.” Filmmakers such as Joss Whedon and Edgar Wright similarly have expressed frustration with the studio’s hands-on approach — which, to be fair, has resulted in both critically and commercially successful blockbusters.
“My experience with Marvel was a great one,” says Coogler. “They were very honest with me and upfront and I was very honest with them about how I wanted to make this movie. It is a collaborative experience. There was a lot of communication back and forth during the process, but I prefer to make movies like that. There are really smart folks over there who have a lot of experience making projects like these and it was great to have them in the battle, in the trenches.”
And “Black Panther,” with its well-defined racial and political anger tempered by hard-won wisdom and inner strength, carries the Coogler stamp. “That is something I talked about with Kevin [Feige, head of Marvel Studios], and it was interesting what he said. He said, ‘You look at any of our films and you will see the stamp of the director on them.’ And I thought about it and I can’t disagree — all their films have the DNA of the filmmakers.”
There’s some James Bond DNA here as well, thanks to things like a car-chase sequence that also includes superhero moments never before seen in a car-chase sequence. Yet the most fantastic element in a movie filled with sonar gliders, underground maglev trains and energy-absorbing super-suits may be the concept of a caring, competent leader. “It’s something we really wanted to show,” says Coogler, “that people look to T’Challa to make the right decisions — the best decisions to represent Wakanda well.”
THE ONES WHO CAME BEFORE
“Black Panther” may be Marvel Studios’ first film with a black lead — and its second on-screen, after TV’s “Luke Cage” — but black superheroes have long starred in movies.
ABAR, aka ABAR, THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN and IN YOUR FACE (1977) Blaxploitation meets sci-fi in this tale of a black scientist whose serum turns his bodyguard into a superpowered crime-fighter.
THE METEOR MAN (1993) Writer-director Robert Townsend stars as a teacher who gains powers after being struck by a meteorite.
BLANKMAN (1994) With no superpowers, but with jerry-rigged robots and a bulletproof costume, nerdy Damon Wayans fights mob boss Jon Polito in a comedy written by “Pretty Woman” screenwriter J.F. Lawton.
STEEL (1997) Shaquille O’Neal plays DC Comics’ costumed, non-superpowered gadgeteer in a less-than-riveting Warner Bros. picture.
SPAWN (1997) Antihero Spawn (Michael Jai White) is the reluctant leader of hell’s army on Earth in this critically savaged adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s Image Comics character.
BLADE trilogy (1998, 2002, 2004) Less a superhero than a supernaturally powered vampire hunter, Marvel Comics’ Blade (Wesley Snipes) nonetheless proved to be at the vanguard of successful comic-book adaptations.
HANCOCK (2008) Will Smith’s non-costumed, drunken slacker of a superhero is a revisionist take on the archetype. — FRANK LOVECE