There’s nothing like a well timed press visit to get fans excited for a series of upcoming movies. Earlier this month Marvel had an open house where members of the press screened footage from Black Panther. If nothing else, the footage as described fits in with the synopsis that Marvel released that the film, directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), will follow T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) after the events of Captain America: Civil War, as he returns home to take his recently deceased father’s place as King of Wakanda. There, he will be called upon in both his capacity as King and as Wakanda’s guardian, Black Panther, to defend the country against an old enemy.
Black Panther is the arguably the most important Marvel Studios film yet. There have indeed been bigger swings for the franchise – The Avengers, Iron Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy all being major gambits – but Black Panther has a chance to be truly unique and ground-breaking for a variety of reasons.
So far we’ve seen US-based heroes and their stories, which often have take them around the world (often with devastating effects, as Sokovia can attest). Marvel also has extraterrestrial heroes like Thor, whose problems have spilled over into our world. However, there haven’t been many Marvel movies to venture into different global cities for the majority of their action. With Black Panther, audiences will get a film set in a fictional nation focused on a solo superhero (rather than team-ups), which offers a wealth of creative opportunities. Guardians of the Galaxy was incredibly successful, in part, because of the specificity of vision and the excitement of a completely different setting from the other Marvel films. Though Black Panther is set on Earth, T’Challa’s country is a new world for audience to get to explore on screen, and will add greatly to the fabric of Coogler’s film.
Marvel is also in a great position to break way from the common Hollywood portrayals and Western stereotypes of Africa – a continent that has only made brief appearances in the MCU so far: when the city of Johannesburg got busted by the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and when the post-credits scene of Captain America: Civil War offered audiences their first look at Wakanda. Portraying an African nation that is rich in technology and culture – beyond any other country on Earth – is not only refreshing from a storytelling standpoint, but could also be important in shifting the way of Africa is thought of by Western audiences.
Another intriguing aspect of the footage was a clip of a seemingly flirtatious exchange between two members of the Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s all-female team of bodyguards. Unfortunately Marvel quickly tried to defuse the excitement over the footage description, stating that “the nature of the relationship between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba’s Ayo in Black Panther is not a romantic one.” This was disappointing news for many, not least because Kasumba’s character is in a lesbian relationship with another member of the Dora Milaje in Ta-nehisi Coates’ current run of Black Panther comics – the main source of inspiration for Coogler’s film.
One area that mainstream superhero movies have been steadfastly reluctant to address is sexuality – to the detriment of some of the franchises. The X-Men movies, many of which have been helmed by openly gay director Bryan Singer and presented mutants as a symbol for persecuted minority groups, have yet to feature an openly LGBT character (though Deadpool has dropped a few hints). There’s a possibility that Warner Bros.’ upcoming Gotham City Sirens movie might feature a Harley Quinn-Poison Ivy relationship, but if Black Panther were to keep Ayo’s sexuality true to the comics (perhaps by making adjustments in reshoots, since principal photography is complete), Marvel could lay claim to giving the world of superhero movies its first explicitly LGBT character.
Coogler has already demonstrated in his first two films the ability to tell stories about the complexities in society. Whether it’s how race is perceived (Fruitvale Station) or masculinity and redemption (Creed), Coogler can unearth rich character arcs regardless of genre. He’ll need to do that even more on Black Panther, so that it can be the rare Marvel film that doesn’t need to directly adhere to the build up to a bigger movie. Audiences can almost be assured that there will be some connection to the other films, most likely in a post-credits scene, but from what was described by the footage and by the various accounts of why Coogler chose to make the film, he’s been given the creative freedom he needs to make Black Panther really special
Last but certainly not least, the box office for this film is crucial to a successful Phase 3. Marvel has yet to release a film that didn’t turn a profit at the box office, and the studio will definitely want to maintain that track record. Black Panther has snagged a smart, strategic release date (Feb 16, 2018) right in the middle of Black History Month, but it will also face a challenge from Pacific Rim 2, which opens the following weekend. That said, Marvel famously won the don’t-blink contest when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice moved from its date to avoid direct competition with Captain America: Civil War, demonstrating the studio’s confidence in the power of the franchise, and Pacific Rim 2 is more likely to be steamrolled than to take the wind out of Black Panther‘s sails.
The success of this movie at the box office will also maybe help strike a death blow against the fault premise that minority-led films don’t sell, or that people of color aren’t bankable. Marvel fans and regular moviegoers alike are already chomping at the bit to see the film; immediately following the character’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War and the announcement of a solo film, the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit popped up and immediately began to trend. There’s big hopes for Black Panther to succeed, and the pressure is now on Marvel to deliver on what may be their most important movie yet.