Not that Marvel’s ever given us cause to doubt them, but after the success of Black Panther, they are absolutely the end-all be-all of not just the superhero genre, but of blockbusters as a whole. They’ve taken “nothing” properties before and transformed them into A-list sensations before, but this feels different somehow: more substantial.
Iron Man might have always had all the trappings of a high-tech Batman, but he certainly never took off like one before his debut movie in 2008. That’s why he was a founding member of a team of B-team superheroes who were struggling to support their own monthly titles: The Avengers, another lackluster property that Marvel studios turned into the premiere name in superhero team-ups (one which certainly holds more clout these days than the more historically successful Justice League). Speaking of B-listers who were founding members of that cost-saving Avengers branding: Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man and, only a few issues later, Captain America. Marvel took them all and made them into the first name out of kids mouths when talking up which hero could beat up which other hero.
You want another out-of-left-field squad of superheroes that Marvel somehow made into overnight successes? Look no further than The Guardians of the Galaxy: a mish-mash of alien super-beings so convoluted that it’s hard to believe that they ever saw the light of day outside of the dusty pages of some moldering comic in some hoarder’s attic. And the fact that we got a speech-impaired tree fighting alongside a talking raccoon before we got Wonder Woman or Justice League on the big screen is truly astounding.
Black Panther feels like an evolution on the patented Marvel money-making formula: an acceleration of unprecedented proportions. It’s not just that nobody had ever heard of this character before Captain America: Civil War (although, to be clear, pretty much nobody had), it’s that everything about him is in direct opposition to the typical Hollywood machinery that dictates the movies that we’re allowed to see. It’s not just that he was a Black superhero, it’s that he was a Black superhero that shared a name with a militant Black movement that died out more than thirty years ago. It’s not just that he was foreign, it’s that he was an African king (something that would have traditionally put off “mainstream America” only a few decades ago (at least according to conventional wisdom).
More than the X-Men, more than Black Widow, more than Captain Marvel, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Black Panther has swung the doors of opportunity wide open for Marvel’s most diverse and interesting characters. Everything from Pakistani Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) to the biracial Ultimate Spider-Man (Miles Morales) to a female Thor (Jane Foster) to a biracial female Captain America (Danielle Cage) and countless others, Marvel now has the proof of concept that, yes, audiences will eagerly pay to see colorful, interesting and well-crafted characters on the big screen.
So where should Marvel go from here? Well, wherever the world, narrative and characters take them, I suppose. Blade is an obvious choice, in that his first run of films was incredibly well received and the franchise could bring a touch of horror to the generally family friendly MCU. Ms. Marvel, Thor Goddess of Thunder, or any of the other aforementioned characters would be similarly great places to start (even if there might be more legwork with those ‘All New, All Different’ legacy characters). Some of the more diverse members of the X-Men, now that Disney’s buying back Fox (and with it, the X-Men film rights) would be similarly great places to start: Storm and X-23 (who debuted in last year’s Logan) seem like great fits for the new direction taken by the MCU.
Marvel has a real opportunity here to both freshen up their existing roster and to introduce some of the most interesting and well-received characters from the pages of the comics that inspired the film mega-franchise to begin with. Let’s hope that Black Panther‘s jaw-dropping success, in every sense of the word, encourages them to pursue them with gusto.