“The Black Panther” looks destined to become an enormous hit, which, given Hollywood’s fondness for sequels and spinoffs, means there will surely be a litter of kittens. Yet as with the superhero world’s other new royalty, “Wonder Woman,” the euphoria greeting the movie’s arrival would benefit from some perspective before rushing to create copycats.
“Black Panther” represents a breakthrough in featuring a predominantly African-American cast in this kind of massive commercial endeavor. While there have been plenty of black superheroes – including Marvel’s “Luke Cage” for Netflix, the “Blade” movies and currently the CW’s “Black Lightning” – seeing Marvel parent Disney’s marking muscle aligned behind such a project creates a sense of genuine significance.
The representation also extends behind the scenes, with Patty Jenkins having brought her directing skills to “Wonder Woman,” and now director/co-writer Ryan Coogler putting his stamp on “Black Panther.” Throw in Ava DuVernay’s upcoming adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” and Jordan Peele’s recent Writers Guild victory for his directorial debut, “Get Out,” and barriers to minority talent overseeing the entertainment industry’s biggest bets are cracking, if not nearly as close as they should be tumbling down.
Further validation comes in the fact that “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” deliver as movies – witness the mostly glowing reviews – in a genre that (certainly in terms of DC’s efforts) has frequently been uneven. Both achieved that by creating organic worlds that offer the requisite CGI-generated mayhem but also conjure compelling characters, in their heroes as well as those surrounding them.
Despite the existing Marvel template, Coogler has pulled off a movie that fits within that framework while stretching it, even if most of the action takes place in the title character’s fictional kingdom of Wakanda.
“Black Panther is essential. Incredible. Revolutionary. Woke. Fun. I can’t stop thinking about it,” Cheo Hodari Coker, the executive producer of “Luke Cage,” wrote on Twitter. “The Cooglerization of the Marvel Universe is exhilarating,”
Still, the reasons these movies work is precisely why they won’t be easily replicated. And the sad history of the entertainment industry has been that it didn’t take many failures to prompt those in decision-making positions to shy away from minority-led projects, heightening the perceived pressure to hit it out of the park.
The real goal, then, isn’t just for “Black Panther” or “Wonder Woman” to demonstrate their worth, but for the future projects they help get off the ground be spared the extra level of scrutiny that past trailblazers have felt, fairly or not.
The good news is that “Black Panther” comes at a moment when plenty of specific visions are coming to screens, from hit TV shows like Fox’s “Empire” to acclaimed series such as “Black-ish,” “Atlanta” (which returns next month), “Insecure” and “Master of None.” The dated notion that projects with minority leads don’t travel as well overseas has also been undercut by movies like the “Fast & Furious” franchise.
Director Reginald Hudlin, whose credits include the recent movie “Marshall” and who worked on Black Panther as a comic book and animated series, has said it’s inevitable that “Black Panther” will create opportunities, as “Wonder Woman” has.
“It’s really a natural extension,” he told Vulture. “There are so many superhero characters. If you don’t diversify, then the market kind of eats itself.”
Eating its own, of course, is a Hollywood tradition. But with “Wonder Woman” and the anticipated coronation of “Black Panther” dispelling old myths, the next generation of superhero movies likely won’t be met with the same jubilation, but also won’t be burdened with the same weight of expectations.
That just leaves the still-daunting task faced by any aspiring blockbuster – namely, reaching the bar that “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” have nimbly cleared.