"Black Panther" is a movie released in February of 2018, taking part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and starring Chadwick Boseman as The Black Panther (or T'Challa), the monarch of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. This is the second time that Boseman has portrayed The Black Panther, the first being as a featuring role in Captain America: Civil War. It also starred Michael B. Jordan, Forest Whittaker, Angela Basset, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman in its ensemble cast. It was directed and written by African-American director Ryan Coogler, who had previously directed Fruitvale Station and Creed. Before its release, much was made of the movie being directed by a black director, with an (almost) all black cast, something that has usually only been true of certain niche films. There was some question about whether this film, with its large budget, could successfully cross over to a wider audience. This is especially the case because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the largest and most ambitious film franchise, putting out a special effects blockbuster two or three times a year for almost a decade. Would a movie like Black Panther, with all its social and political implications, appeal to comic book movie fans?
My own presuppositions going into the movie was that I was going to see a comic book movie, with all that entails. A piece of comic book history: The Black Panther was introduced in Fantastic Four #52, just one month after the conclusion of The Galactus Trilogy, which was proceeded by the saga of The Inhumans. This was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in overdrive, expanding their world at a rapid pace, doing world building for the Marvel Universe that expanded horizons while also maintaining its own internal "realism". Interestingly, the introduction of The Black Panther followed another story about a hidden, high technology civilization, as well as a color-themed hero that didn't act like a conventional hero. Black Panther's introduction was part of a creative explosion, although over the years, the character has often been underutilized, being an interesting character that never quite made it to Marvel's A-List, in part due to black superheroes being relegated to supporting roles. But my main expectation when I entered the theater was that I would see a comic book movie that would introduce The Black Panther while leading up to the upcoming The Avengers: Infinity War film.
It turns out that "Black Panther" isn't really a comic book movie. This wasn't a source of disappointment, since what it was, was something even more excellent and unusual. The basic plot of the movie involves the related stories of The Black Panther, T'Challa, assuming the throne, and balancing his personal nobility against the necessities of his office; and of Wakanda's attempts to stay safe and isolated in a rapidly changing world, with the voices for and against its integration into the wider world providing the grounds for a dynastic conflict that confronts the still-somewhat naive T'Challa. There is only one section of the movie that feels like a comic book movie, a car chase scene in Korea. Even the parts that are science-fiction feel more like James Bond then a conventional comic book movie. But even without the high tech backgrounds, the movie works. Because, in essence, this movie is more of a costume drama about dynastic struggles than anything. The movie uses Afrofuturistic designs instead of Elizabethean collars or Roman togas, but it is in essence a character-driven drama about the uses and abuses of power. That also delivers a serious political debate without being overwrought or melodramatic. The reason this movie works is that almost all of the comic book elements could be stripped away, and it would still be a great story, which is something I don't think has been true of any other Marvel movie.
So a serious character-driven drama with a forceful and sometimes uncomfortable political and social message? What was the reaction to that. Critics loved it, giving it the highest rating of any Marvel movie. And audiences loved it even more, putting it on track to be one of the highest-grossing pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The great success will hopefully encourage more big budget films with African-American casts, as well as expanding the dramatic scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.