In 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man (2008) as the first in a series of global blockbusters based on popular comic book heroes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, popular known as the MCU, has produced 17 films so far. On February 16, the 18th MCU entry, Black Panther will be released. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), the movie is the first to feature a black superhero. Chadwick Boseman, best known for his acclaimed turn as the rhythm and blues singer James Brown in the 2014 film Get on Up, does the honours.
Black Panther is the name adopted by King T’Challa of the futuristic African kingdom of Wakanda. The character, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, made his first appearance in issue 52 of Fantastic Four in 1966. After featuring in several Marvel comics, including The Avengers, for years, he had his first solo run in issue five and onward in the Jungle Action series. The costume worn by Black Panther in the film has been inspired by the latest interpretation of the character by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze.
Black Panther is of historical importance – he is the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics. Black Panther/T’Challa first appeared in a supporting role in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War. The character, in the words of producer Kevin Feige, became a part of that film because of the need of a “third party” who was not a part of The Avengers and thus could have a different perspective on the fight between Captain America and Iron Man.
Coogler’s Black Panther follows the character upon his return to Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War.
Following the death of his father T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa becomes the rightful heir to the throne, but his ascendancy is challenged by enemies outside Wakanda, such as Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and within the kingdom such as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan). Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine, Coogler said that through the film, he is trying to ask and answer the question: “What does [it] truly mean to be African?”
Coogler said, “The MCU has set itself in the real world as much as possible – so what does it mean for T’Challa to move around as this black man in a movie reality that tries to be a real world?”
Black Panther is Jordan’s third outing with Coogler. He has played the lead roles in his previous two films. As Killmonger, Jordan plays a former American black-ops soldier from Wakanda who returns to his homeland to challenge T’Challa. Jordan compared his character’s relationship with T’Challa as the one between Magneto and Professor X in an interview with MTV. Killmonger’s distinctive tribal marks that form a raised pattern on his chest and torso are inspired by the scar tattoos of the Mursi and Surma tribes of Ethiopia. Corey Calliet, who trained Jordan for his role in Creed where the actor played a boxer, has guided him in Black Panther too.
Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, 2013) stars as Nakia, a spy and fighter for the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces of Wakanda who serve as T’Challa’s bodyguards. In the comics, Nakia is hopelessly in love with T’Challa and is jealous of his lovers. She later becomes a villain under the aegis of Killmonger. In an interview with Collider, Nyong’o described her character as a “war dog” dedicated to the service of Wakanda above everything else. For her role, she had to train in a variety of fighting styles that includes judo, ju-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts.
The other Academy Award-winning actor in the cast is Forest Whitaker. Whitaker and Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett play Zuri and Ramonda respectively. They are elders of the society of Wakanda. While Ramonda is T’Challa’s mother, Zuri is a spiritual figure described by Coogler as “Black Panther’s version of Obi-Wan Kenobi [the Star Wars character]”.
Other cast members include Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister Shuri, Danai Gurira as Dora Milaje’s head Okoye, Daniel Kaluuya (who has scored an Oscar nod in the Best Actor category this year for his work in Get Out) as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi, and Winston Duke as M’Baku, a tribal leader in Wakanda who is conflicted about challenging T’Challa for the throne or helping him defending the kingdom from Killmonger.
Martin Freeman reprises his role as Central Intelligence Agency member and T’Challa’s ally Everett K Ross. He was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Andy Serkis’s character Ulysses Klaue is an outsider to Wakanda with evil designs of his own. Boseman called Klaue the “Osama bin Laden of the movie” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Calling Wakanda an “isolationist society”, Boseman elaborated, “Klaue has entered that space and knows more about it than anybody else. Because of that, he is a threat.”
Black Panther had its premiere in Los Angeles on January 29. Reactions were predominantly positive, with Twitter being abuzz about the film’s powerful portrayal of black women. “Black Panther is a love letter about blackness to a world that often ghettoises it without realising that it is on black blacks that the planet revolves,” The Los Angeles Times critic Tre’vell Anderson wrote. Indiewire’s David Ehrlich, meanwhile, lauded the film for being the first MCU feature to have an “actual sense of identity and history and musicality”.
India has been one of the prime markets for MCU’s films. Eight of the 20 highest-grossing Hollywood films in India are based on Marvel characters. The last MCU film to be released in India, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), earned Rs 76 crore, largely possible because of the release of the Hindi-dubbed version.
Black Panther is also being released in Hindi. Manoj Muntashir, who earlier wrote the Hindi dialogue for the Baahubali films, has recreated Black Panther’s otherworldly charm in Hindi.
The movie might have come out earlier if Hollywood actor Wesley Snipes had had his way. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Snipes reveals being approached by Marvel in the mid-1990s for a possible adaptation. “I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes told the publication. “It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the black community and the white community hadn’t seen before.”
The obstacles includes Marvel’s poor clout at the time – it hadn’t yet been acquired by Disney – and the fruitless hunt for a suitable screenwriter and director. Among the names suggested were Mario Van Peebles and John Singleton.
“Ultimately, we couldn’t find the right combination of script and director and, also at the time, we were so far ahead of the game in the thinking, the technology wasn’t there to do what they had already created in the comic book,” Snipes said in the interview. Instead, he went on to play Blade, the vampire hunter character from the Marvel comic books and the “first hit film based on a Marvel property”, Hollywood Reporter noted.