In less than two weeks, Black Panther — the highly anticipated Marvel Studios film featuring its first black superhero in a leading role — will finally hit theaters. The film has been generating massive online buzz ever since its pitch-perfect casting announcements began hitting the web, and all of the gorgeous footage we've seen has only served to stoke the fire. Advance ticket sales are through the roof, and the film is tracking toward a $150 million opening, which is big for any month, but particularly big for a film being released in February.
There's more to this film than hashtags and big box office numbers, though. If it lands as well as it appears it will, Black Panther is on track to be a cultural milestone in the shared-universe era of blockbusters. It's the first movie either Marvel or DC Films has handed to an African-American director, and the most diverse film of the current superhero movie age, with a cast made up mostly of African-American and African actors like star Chadwick Boseman, Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, and more. It's a film that's not only cultivating diversity onscreen, but also in its potential fanbase, serving a demographic that's all too often underrepresented in blockbusters. African-American superhero fans have been waiting for this moment for a long time, to the point that celebrities are buying out whole theaters so young students who might not otherwise be able to afford a ticket get a chance to see a little of themselves in a superhero world.
For his part, director Ryan Coogler is well aware of the importance of the film he just made, a film he considered so personal that he actually traveled to Africa for the first time before he felt he could get it right. Black Panther is poised to be a major 21st-century pop culture moment, but for Coogler, the key is to not stop there.
“I think progress comes in ebbs and flows,” Coogler said during a lengthy interview with Boseman for Variety. “I hope things continue to open up. As more content gets made, more opportunities like ours can come about for folks. But you’ve got to put your foot on the gas when it comes to that or things can go back to where they were.”
Black Panther's setting and story presented a unique challenge for Marvel Studios. The film is set in a fictional African nation — Wakanda — which meant an entire culture and way of thinking had to be built from the ground up (with decades of Black Panther comics as reference material, of course). There are intense issues of identity at work, as well as the challenges that come with both closing yourself off from the world (Wakanda is historically isolate) and letting the world in as T'Challa (Boseman) ventures out from his homeland. African and African-American culture and experience is embedded in Black Panther in ways no other Marvel film has even come close to capturing thus far. So, Variety put the question to Boseman: Could a white director have made this film? His answer is, of course, complex.
“Well, is it possible for them to make it? It could be, yes," he said. "Would they have [Coogler's] perspective? Probably not. It wouldn’t be nuanced in the same way because they wouldn’t have the same conflict. They don’t have the African-American conflict that exists: Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you have an ancestry that is very hard to trace.”
Black Panther is in theaters Feb. 16.