With multi-billion dollar sway, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has immense power. Beyond the heroic storylines and latex outfits, in Black Panther the shared superhero universe has the opportunity to provide an antidote to a lack of representation in Hollywood as a whole.
Make no mistake about it, the lack of diversity in cinema's elite is a prevalent issue. Highlighted recently by the #OscarsSoWhite boycott of this year's Oscars, the stats tell a disturbing truth. A USC study analysed 11,000 speaking parts in films and TV shows in 2014 and discovered a mere 28% were non-white.
The picture is even bleaker when you consider 87% of film directors were white, and only 3% were female. Black director Ryan Coogler is part of the minority 13%, and became embroiled in the Oscar's controversy himself after he was snubbed for a nomination despite writing and directing one of the best films of the year, Creed.
The Antidote To Hollywood's Lack Of Diversity
At just 30-years-old, Coogler is one of the most exciting prospects in the industry, now given the opportunity to wield the power of the MCU by directing the solo Black Panther movie. This movie could become the MCU's most important, and Coogler knows it. Talking to EW at the San Diego Comic-Con, he highlighted the lack of representation, especially in the superhero genre. He said:
"The superhero field is a field where there’s not a lot of representation. It’s traditionally white male, but the fans look like the world. So, naturally, people are going to yearn to see someone flying around doing these incredible things that looks like them. It’s an incredible opportunity, but that’s what keeps me up at night – for better and for worse."
It's not surprising Coogler occasionally struggles to sleep. Prior to adding to the Rocky Balboa legacy with last year's Creed he directed and wrote Fruitvale Station (2013), which was made on a modest budget and was well received by critics. But Black Panther will be a different beast.
Expectations are high after Chadwick Boseman's debut portrayal of T'Challa in Civil War managed to stand out from the crowd, even when that crowd consisted of superhero heavyweights Iron Man, Captain America and Spider-Man. Boseman also noted the significance the film can have. Talking to Gizmodo at Comic-Con, he said:
"I know how important it is, particularly for people of African descent. In terms of seeing everybody’s response to it, all types of people have responded to me since Civil War came out.
"But this is the first place where I’ve seen them all together—black people, Asian people, Latino people, middle-aged people, young people, old people… It’s something to see all in one spot. So, I’d definitely say yesterday was the first time it just hit me.”
The King Of Wakanda
The reason Black Panther has become somewhat of an icon is clear to see. The leader of Wakanda would hesitate to refer to himself as a superhero, despite being one of the leading intellectuals in the world of Marvel. Since his debut in 1966, the character has always been politically charged, delicately balancing his role as King and superhero.
In contemporary comic books, the recent series created by Ta-Nehisi Coates has won great acclaim, telling the story of Black Panther while also tackling important themes relevant to black culture. Black Panther No. 1 was the Marvel's best selling comic of 2016, until it was knocked off its perch by Civil War II.
Although a big-budget blockbuster set in the paradigm of the MCU, Coogler won't shy away from tackling political themes and representing black culture (the film has a 90% black cast) in the way Coates' influential series has done. While talking to Vulture, he confirmed that he will take inspiration from the comic book writer's work:
"What he’s doing with Panther is just incredible. You can really see his background as a poet in some of the dialogue. And what Brian Stelfreeze is doing with the visuals in that book. And some of the questions that it’s asking. It’s just inspiring for [co-screenwriter] Joe Robert Cole and myself."
How The Superhero Genre Can Positively Influence Hollywood
As well as a becoming a beacon for black culture, the film also plays on gender roles. Citizens of Wakanda worship the panther goddess and the elite group of bodyguards to the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, are formed entirely of women. In the film, Lupita Nyong’o will play one of the group, Nakia.
The DC Extended Universe — in some ways the younger, estranged sibling of the MCU — is also making positive strides with representation in the form of Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot's continues the momentum gained from her impressive appearance in Batman v Superman, and all the signs suggest the DCEU's first female led movie can be have a positive impact on the representation of women.
The superhero genre is flourishing, with no signs of slowing down. Crucially, films like Black Panther and Wonder Woman illustrate that the genre has maneuvered itself into a position where it is capable of having a positive impact, not just on the industry itself, but also further afield.
Superheroes have provided inspiration to audiences and comic book readers the world over. The most important step-forward the industry can now make is representing that diverse range on the screen, giving those people the world over the chance to see a reflection of themselves.
Black Panther is released on July 6, 2018.