Marvel’s Black Panther: Diversity Makes Us All Better
Black Panther is well on its way to making more at the domestic box office than “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Let that sink in for just a minute.
This is a Marvel movie, so you would expect it to do well, but this is not an Avengers sequel or an Iron Man movie. This makes it all the more amazing that after its third weekend in theaters, it’s number 10 on the all-time domestic still first place in the US. In fact, it’s very likely it will surpass The Avengers and land squarely in the top 10.
Many people have complained about “Marvel fatigue” in the last couple of years. It seems to some that every movie coming from the House that Stan Built has the same setup and plot on a fundamental level. In the way that “Doctor Strange” was essentially “Iron Man” but with a bald Tilda Swinton instead of a captured Middle Eastern scientist and a little splash of magic.
Most of their movies tend to follow the same ebb and flow and will usually end nice and tidy and set us up for the next adventure. Sure, there have been the exceptions that played around with different genres, such as “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” which is a spy thriller disguised as a superhero movie. Or “Iron Man 3,” which is a Shane Black movie disguised as an “Iron Man” movie. But, genuinely breaking the mold is something that Marvel head Kevin Feige has been reluctant to do, and with good reason. He’s built the most successful movie empire in history and keeping the audience happy is a balancing act.
“Black Panther” is a movie about a warrior king in a fictional African country. The film cast is mostly made up of black actors. Obviously, for those who crave more positive black representation in films, this is a huge deal but I think the universal reception it’s receiving is due to other factors as well. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll list a couple here.
It’s a story unlike we’ve ever seen from Marvel.
“Black Panther” eschews the traditions of disguising “insert genre movie” as a superhero movie because nothing like it has ever come before. Sure, there is more than one allusion made to the story of Mufasa and Simba in this film, but it’s all done subtly, with elegance and respect, because, director Ryan Couglar knows, that you don’t get to make a $250 million movie about African culture every day. Also, he wanted to make it relatable to general audiences, because – Marvel movie.
For the first time, on the big screen, it puts an African character front and center in the cast of Marvel’s big guns going forward. With him, comes all of his culture, history, and a unique perspective.
This movie is also about diversity, but that doesn’t stop with race. And it doesn’t stop with the inclusion of three of the strongest female co-leads we’ve seen in any recent movie. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the love interest of Black Panther and a spy for the country. Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Wakandan royal guard and a warrior that could stand toe to toe with T’Challa. Letitia Wright is Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and head of science for Wakanda.
The heads at Marvel have chosen to allow voices that may otherwise get drowned out to be heard. This isn’t a new thing however as Kevin Feige has shown he’s a master at finding directors that have impacted the indie scene but haven’t made the jump to big-budget films, allowing them to add their own unique “voice” to a movie.
For proof, look squarely at last year’s “Thor: Ragnarok” as a very successful turn from director Taika Waititi. Waititi was most well known for “What We Do In The Shadows” and “The Hunt For The Wilderpeople.” If you’ve never heard of those films, you’re not alone. He was able to take a franchise that was completely stagnant and do something truly original with it.
The Russo Brothers are the guys that directed the last two Captain America movies and are in the process of wrapping up the two-part Infinity War movies. They worked on the sitcoms “Arrested Development” and “Community” before taking a crack at “Winter Soldier,” and that’s about it. Kevin Feige knows talent and has plucked some pretty great creators from obscurity, but until now he’s not pegged anyone of color to helm a film.
It seems that it was a brilliant move to grab Couglar. Coming off of two critically acclaimed films such as “Creed” and “Fruitville Station,” made him ripe for the picking. It merely took a story that only he could tell to get him in the fold. His connection with frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger) and new star Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa/Black Panther), is spectacular and you can tell that all parties are only concerned in making a movie they can be proud of regardless of the genre.
The upcoming “Captain Marvel” film will be directed by the first female ever to helm a Marvel movie, Anna Boden, and written by some very talented women as well.
These moves continue to show why Marvel has been the force it has in cinema for the past decade. They understand their characters deeply and know that sometimes the best people to tell their stories are those who have the life experience, passion for, and closeness to the material. Representation is great, but it means nothing if it’s token.
Stories need diversity because they help us relate to people that we may not otherwise be able to. They relay what’s important to others and allow us to pick up ideas and experiences that are foreign to ours. That’s why Jesus used them to relate the character of God to us.
One of the reasons this movie is such a big deal is because of its scale. It allows people who trace their roots back to Africa a chance to celebrate their heritage. At the same time, those who aren’t tied to it, get access to cultures they may not have been interested in because it’s presented inside of a tentpole Marvel superhero movie.
What Fiege and Couglar have proven with “Black Panther” is that people of all races (opening weekend attendance was split 35% white and 37% black) will positively respond to stories told genuinely by people that have real things to say. All that diversity of thought, race, and experience can only serve to make these movies better going into the next ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.