Before I See Black Panther …
Marvel’s much-anticipated Black Panther comes out this week.
Everybody seems to be excited for it. Everywhere I turn, I get reminded about Black Panther. That’s not exactly unusual for a Marvel blockbuster, but Black Panther seems like it’s being advertised as if it’s somehow unique among all of Disney’s Marvel films, and films in general. After the success of DC’s Wonder Woman, Marvel almost immediately answered back with the first trailer for Black Panther, as if to signal it would be the superhero film for minorities just as Wonder Woman was said to be for women. I know the big narrative around the film is that it’s the first superhero film led by a Black actor. That’s not true, but it is the most high-profile one. Presale tickets and early reviews have already ensured Black Panther will be one of Marvel’s most successful films. In fact, the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT started trending in 2016, after fans were able to first see Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa, the titular Black Panther, in action in Captain America: Civil War.
Even though the majority of audiences haven’t seen the film yet, the New York Times has already labeled the film as a “defining moment for Black America.” Other sites have made similar claims that Black Panther “marks a cultural shift,” and finally allows Black characters to be just as prominent as their White counterparts. Basically, at this point, it seems like the majority of people who are at all interested in seeing Black Panther have already decided they like it. The film is already a critical and financial success. It’s already a socially important film, and supposedly he’s the hero we all need right now. Specifically, as a Black man, I’m being told how Black Panther is the hero I need right now.
I’ll admit, I’m excited for the film (kind of). I’m a fan of the film’s director, Ryan Coogler. He won me over with Fruitvale Station, and he solidified himself as more than just a fluke when he revitalized the Rocky franchise with Creed. Both of those films also starred Michael B. Jordan, one of my favorite actors working today. Jordan is again teaming up with Coogler for Black Panther as one of the film’s villains. In fact, looking at Black Panther’s cast list shows that damn near all of Hollywood’s Black stars leaped at the chance to join Coogler’s blockbuster. I like the cast, I like the director, and I like what I’ve heard of the soundtrack. From what little I know about him, I like the character of Black Panther, and yeah, I am looking forward to seeing a blockbuster hero that looks like me on the big screen. My only problem? I don’t really like Marvel films.
I should clarify: I like the adventurous spirit of Marvel films, and I dig Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy. As actual films, however, they’re more or less the safest kind of films at this point. You pretty much walk in with expectations, get exactly what you expected from the trailers, and move on. Some of the films even feel more like commercials for other films, rather than films on their own. They’ve never been films that I actually want to rewatch (with the exceptions of Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and to a lesser extent, the first Iron Man). I still remember watching Iron Man with my friends when it came out. It was good times, but I didn’t think it was great; I thought the villain was weak (I didn’t know then that it would be a major criticism of Marvel films). It was a fun film, and it looked very sleek, but the best part about it was that it was shiny and new; everybody was talking about it. Most of what I liked about that particular film was in the trailers for it, so seeing the film felt more like a formality. I liked it, but not enough to pay to see the sequels in theaters.
I don’t understand the fervor around MCU films myself. I can only chalk it up to effective marketing on Disney’s part, and brand recognition when it comes to Marvel. Audiences let Marvel films get away with things that other franchises can’t. They’re almost aggressively formulaic and at times too comedic; the themes aren’t very deep, the music often sounds the same, and every character who isn’t an Avenger or Loki is forgettable. Besides that, they have a pretty well-known problem with villains. Their best films are the ones that try to move away from that formula, either in terms of tone or genre, but I don’t think Disney is willing to do that here. Every risk taken may result in alienating potential ticket buyers. At the same time, I will admit that, given how superhero fatigue is starting to set in with filmgoers, this is the best time to take chances. Coupled with our current political climate, that may have given Disney enough courage to actually try to make something that’s not a regurgitation. Either way, I think those two things are definitely the reason Disney, Marvel, and everyone involved with the film are marketing Black Panther as a long overdue beacon of hope.
I’ve only seen about half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in theaters, and I never went to see them because I was dying to see them. I wouldn’t really count myself as a huge fan of MCU films, which is important to note, but I would say I’m a fan of Marvel. As far as their MCU goes, I think their best works are their Netflix series. Personally, I feel like Luke Cage already gave us the Black hero we all needed. I get that Luke Cage, being a streaming TV show, doesn’t have the same kind of prestige that Black Panther has, but there’s no denying that Luke Cage was the hero Black America needed at the time we needed him. He’s a hoodie wearing, bulletproof Black man who has been to prison under false charges. He’s far from rich, but he’s a moral center for his Harlem community. Disney didn’t take an overbearing approach to Luke Cage. They largely left it to the showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, to produce his vision.
Disney recruits very skilled, young or offbeat directors for their MCU films, but they aren’t there to be auteurs (just ask Edgar Wright). They’re there to be contracted laborers. That’s why, as much as everybody’s telling me to get excited for Black Panther, I’m more or less lukewarm on it. Yeah, I’ll see it, and I’m sure Ryan Coogler will do a good job on it. However, I just can’t pretend that this will be his vision through and through. It will be the vision that Disney lets him film, and thus it will be the version of minorities that Disney is comfortable with showing to mass audiences. It will be a family-friendly fare, a tour through a glamorous Africa, and most likely identical to all of their White lead properties with a coat of black paint. I’m glad there will finally be a film that shows Africa in a positive and progressive light, but it’s not like I can ever visit Wakanda. Luke Cage takes place in Harlem and shows its problems. That’s real to me. Luke Cage also regularly uses the word n—a because, whether a positive force or negative, it’s part of Black culture. I hear it when I’m around my friends, and I hear it in the music I listen to. I would be astounded if Black Panther featured the word at all. I’m not saying Black Panther should use the word, just that I don’t think Disney would allow it.
Marvel is Disney, and Disney is, above all else, a corporation (a big one). It exists to make a profit, and it’s perfected its ability to generate profit through the MCU. I’m sure Black Panther will make them more money than Luke Cage did, and they’re going to push it as hard as they can. I don’t want to come off as being cynical just for the sake of it. I just don’t think Black Panther will be the film that ends racism in the media, as the media itself is telling me it will. Instead, it will most likely just be a perfectly fine film. I don’t think it started a revolution. If anything, Black Panther is just part of the same revolution in films that Straight Outta Compton and Get Out were. I wish, more than anything, it existed in a world where it could be just another film. I wish it wasn’t marketed as “the Black one” and was just another film. I wish it wasn’t being treated as abnormal.
All that said, I am going to see Black Panther as soon as it opens. I want to watch it succeed, and I want to see a solid film. I’ll see it for its cast and for the director. I hope I’m wrong about everything I’ve said, and I hope the film blows me away. Furthermore, I hope it’s legitimately a great film and not just a film that was prematurely deemed “important.” For now, however, I can’t help but think this is Disney’s carefully curated gift to its Black audience for Black History Month.