Walk into any movie theater in the United States, and a cast full of white faces will stare back from the screen, apart from a few darker hues added to create a sense of diversity.
Superhero movies are no different, but then there is “Black Panther.”
That is not to say it is a complete anomaly in the Marvel universe. The studio’s most recent cinematic hit is made up of the same superhero dynamics fans have come to expect and continues the narrative fans have been following since “Iron Man” came out in 2008, all leading up to the epic Thanos showdown that will begin in “Avengers: Infinity War” in May.
“Black Panther” also does something Marvel Studios has not done until now: it makes a statement about the racial climate in the United States and embraces diversity and minority representation with a nearly all-black cast and a black director, Ryan Coogler, leading the way.
The studio’s venture has paid off. The film has already seen massive success in its four-day opening weekend. It made $263 million domestically and $462 million worldwide, becoming the fifth-highest opening film ever and the third highest for a four-day opening weekend.
It has also won the distinction of highest opening of all time for a film in February, making its release during Black History Month only that much sweeter.
“Black Panther” is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a hidden gem that is both ancient and highly futuristic.
Wakanda looks like a third-world country to outsiders, but it is actually miles ahead of the rest of the world in terms of resources and technology, powered by a massive supply of the super-metal Vibranium, which Wakandans have kept secret from the rest of the world for ages. It is this super-metal that turns protagonist King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) into the Black Panther and gives him superhuman abilities.
In the aftermath of “Captain America: Civil War” and in the wake of his father’s death, T’Challa returns to his home country of Wakanda to take over his father’s throne. Shortly after assuming the throne, he must go after arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has discovered Wakanda’s resources and stolen some Vibranium he plans to sell.
Working with Klaue is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a radical street kid turned killing machine who seems to know a lot about Wakanda and who wants to start an all-out race war by securing the Wakandan throne and all of its resources.
As radical as Killmonger’s ideas about race are, he is charismatic enough to compel the audience into considering what he is saying. He’s maybe even more compelling than T’Challa himself, who takes on a more conservative position, partly because of his role as king, but also because of his commitment to Wakandan tradition.
More importantly, Killmonger brings up the kinds of racial issues no one else wants to address. Wakandans are living in comfortable wealth, while black communities around the world suffer from poverty, oppression and systematic racism. Killmonger’s methods aren’t ideal, but he manages to plant the seed in audiences and T’Challa's mind and start a conversation about sharing the wealth.
Even more notably, it is not a man who fights by T’Challa’s side to defeat the antagonists throughout the course of the movie. It’s three insanely tough black women who make up this part of the film’s supporting cast.
The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira stars as Okoye, the head of Wakanda’s special forces and an expert spear wielder, while Lupita Nyong’o holds her own as Nakia, a spy with impressive fighting skills and T’Challa’s love interest. There is also breakout star Letitia Wright from "Black Mirror’s" “Black Museum” episode, who steals the show as T’Challa’s little sister Shuri, a tech genius rivaling Tony Stark, with wit and sarcasm to spare. She spends as much time building new weapons and armor for Black Panther as she does giving him a hard time.
It is a satisfying departure from the norm for Marvel, who usually throws in a female love interest here and a female superhero there, always maintaining its usual boys’ club.
The same could be said about the film as a whole. The change in tone, message and cast works because the rest of the elements are the same superhero formula we’re all used to. Stunning graphics – and an even more stunning location–incredible fight sequences, a car chase and that special kind of energy Marvel movies are so great at capturing.
Coogler captures this while striving to create something more meaningful and inspiring than Marvel is usually known for. “Black Panther” has set a new bar for superhero movies and inclusivity in Hollywood. The only question is why it took so long and whether the audience will see more of this from now on.