Black Panther: How the Ryan Coogler film marks a long-overdue cultural shift in Marvel Cinematic Universe

Prahlad Srihari

Feb,13 2018 17:04:34 IST

While superheroes in movies sure come in all shapes and sizes, they didn't always come in all colours or genders. They were all mostly male, monochromatic characters with a bloated sense of self-importance and righteousness.

Then, last year, Wonder Woman transcended the pages of comic books to become a deeply inspiring cultural phenomenon. Not only was Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman the first female superhero to get her own movie in either of the two shared universes from rivals DC and Marvel, she also lassoed the first female director of a studio superhero movie.

A promo poster for Black Panther. Marvel Studios

A promo poster for Black Panther. Marvel Studios

This Friday, the release of Marvel's Black Panther will mark major cinematic milestones for African, African-American and popular culture. It is the first film in Marvel's — now decade-old — Cinematic Universe to feature a black lead and a black director. And going by its early reviews and predictions, we may be in for another bonafide cultural phenomenon.

Chadwick Boseman stars as Black Panther aka T'Challa, the king of the wealthy African nation of Wakanda, a technologically advanced modern metropolis enriched by a mineral with extraterrestrial origins. In the Ryan Coogler-directed film, this futuristic land represents a fantasy of an Africa unsullied by white colonialism and exploitation. Lupita Nyong‘o, who plays the Wakandan warrior spy, Nakia in the film, said at the premiere, "Marvel has a way of really affecting popular culture, and to have that popular culture informed with things that are of African origin...is powerful. Hopefully it changes the general idea of what being an African is. Too often times we see Africa as a place that is wanting, and here it's a place that you want to go."

But the Ryan Coogler-directed film is much more than representation and romaticisation. It also offers millions a relatable onscreen character who personifies the black experience and aids others in understanding it, especially in these tumultuous political and cultural times. ​After years of neglecting African American talent, Black Panther, thus, marks a cultural shift in superhero franchises, cinematic universes, Hollywood and beyond.

And it all began with a dream​

With the Martin Luther King Jr-led civil rights movement reaching its peak in the mid-60s, ​two white, Jewish American men — Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — brought the first black superhero, Black Panther, to the pages of Marvel's comic books. Though the appearance was brief and as a guest character in The Fantastic Four #52, it truly was a historic moment. Black Panther's superhuman abilities came from a magical Wakandan herb and his mystical connection with a Panther god. ​

The first African-American super hero, Falcon, followed in 1969 in Captain America #117. ​The winged superhero, though, was reduced to Captain America's sidekick (much like in today's MCU films) and their asymmetric relationship perhaps was the perfect metaphor for the African-American experience and represented their struggles.

Wesley Snipes in a promo for Blade

Wesley Snipes in a promo for Blade

A little history

During the blaxploitation craze, Luke Cage broke new ground in 1972 by becoming the first African-American super hero with his own comic book series. Cage was a trash-talking, streetwise, ex-con who gains superhuman strength and seemingly unbreakable skin after a sabotaged prison experiment. Interestingly, he was also the first black superhero to get his own TV/streaming series (on Netflix) and it took him just 44 years!

​The Blaxploitation era of the 70s led to a Golden Age for Marvel’s black superheroes and saw the creation of a black superhero comic, which perhaps spawned the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Blade, who was introduced in the comic book The Tomb of Dracula #10, was a vampire human hybrid who hunted other vampires. The character was immortalised in the classic 1998 R-Rated adaptation by Wesley Snipes. Clad in long black leather coat and wearing dark sunglasses, he fought for the last shred of humanity by hacking and slashing his way through a legion of vampires with a katana sword. Snipes' Blade trilogy amassed $415 million and pulled Marvel out of near-bankruptcy.

The way ahead

This provided the blueprint for the modern superhero film and paved the way for X-Men, Spider-Man and MCU. “Blade paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” said artist Ron Wimberly, whose work includes the covers for Mighty Avengers. "Blade ushered in a new age of super-hero cinema. Without Blade, there’d be no Guardians of the Galaxy."

Marvel's first black female superhero appeared in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975 as the weather-wielding warrior Storm. She was also the first black member of the X-Men and served as the Queen of Wakanda when she was married to Black Panther (though the marriage didn't last and ended in divorce). She was played by Halle Berry in the original X-Men franchise and most recently by Alexandra Shipp in the 2016 film X-Men: Apocalypse.

Halle Berry as Storm in the X-Men franchise

Halle Berry as Storm in the X-Men franchise

DC Comics, on the other hand, turned up a bit late on the scene with its first black superhero, John Stewart, who took over the mantle of Green Lantern after previous backup, Guy Gardner, was seriously injured; or in the words of the artist, Neal Adams, "We ought to have a black Green Lantern, not because we’re liberals, but because it just makes sense" considering the racial makeup of the global population. DC Entertainment, of course, had the opportunity to beat Marvel in establishing the archetype of the black superhero but they instead chose to cast Ryan Reynolds. However, Black Lightning, DC's second black superhero, got his own TV show on The CW last month.

Following the death of Peter Parker in the Marvel's Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, an Afro-Latino teenager — reportedly inspired by former US president Barack Obama and everyone's favourite multi-hyphenate Donald Glover — named Miles Morales took over the duties of the famous web-slinger. Marvel Studios, too, could easily have cast a black Spider-Man in MCU after two franchises with white Peter Parkers. But they chose not to casting Tom Holland instead.

So, 58 years after he was introduced in the pages of Marvel's comic books, Black Panther is set to star in his own standalone movie. To say it was long overdue is obviously an understatement. But now that it's finally here, let's hope it leaves a cultural footprint that rewrites the narrative of black superheroes in film.

Watch the trailer for Black Panther below:

Updated Date: Feb 13, 2018 18:40 PM