Let’s just take a moment to appreciate just how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come since it launched in 2008. We’ve gone from a monochrome boy’s club for Phase 1 to an emerging bed of diversity in Phase 3: still not enough, mind you, but certainly a good start.
We have a confirmed Black Widow movie in the works. Captain Marvel is going to be the big lead-in to Avengers 4. Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, Shuri and Okoye are rounding out the superheroic casts across the mega-franchise. Miles Morales is even a confirmed canonical character in the MCU (if he survive Infinity War, that is).
And there’s Black Panther: the wonderful little movie that, by all rights, should not exist. That’s not meant to be disparaging nor is it some kind of veiled commentary on what I think about the movie. The movie is easily one of the best that Marvel’s ever put out in terms of raw quality and, in its way, it is every bit as refreshing a change of pace as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok. It is everything that the MCU needed and, for most fans, it was something that we never knew we wanted.
No, what’s remarkable about Black Panther‘s existence is just how inconsequential the franchise is relative to the roster of heavy-hitters that Marvel has at their disposal. The character always occupied a narrowly-drawn niche in the comic world and was virtually ignored by everybody else. The first time I saw one of his comics in a shop, I thought that it was an ill-considered blaxsploitive cash-in on the Black Panther party and just as quickly put it back on the shelf. Having learned better since, that exchange would have gone very differently today.
The truth of the matter is that virtually nobody outside of a narrow segment of the comic-reading world knew who T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, Black Panther and king of Wakanda was prior to his cinematic introduction in Captain America: Civil War. He was introduced in the same movie that saw Spider-Man come home to the movie studio and he had to share the movie with ten other already-established heroes and their assorted supporting casts. T’Challa even had to spend most of the film facing down the film’s title character, ostensibly on the wrong side of film’s central conflict.
It is a testament, then, to just how great the character is that he became as instantly popular as he did. He somehow managed to stand out among such a large and scene-stealing cast, within a narrative that was largely not his own and without the benefit of a solo introduction prior in mega-franchise. He proved to be a complex and interesting character: relatable (for a king), and yet completely unknowable from our outside perspective. Chadwick Boseman, who had already proven himself a powerful leading man in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, turned out to be an utterly inspired choice, whose transfixing, raspy accent and domineering presence (not to mention his slick costume) made him a commanding presence on the big screen.
From the moment that Civil War was released in theaters, Black Panther was a guaranteed box office success. Captain America was his proving ground, and left the character with a massive and rapidly expanding fanbase eager to see what he could do when left to his own devices. More than just being Marvel’s first Black superhero that wasn’t simply tagged on as a member of a White Avenger’s supporting cast (ie Falcon and War Machine), T’Challa was the hero of his own movie: a protagonist explicitly on the same level as Cap and Stark and all the rest.
He was also a decidedly African hero: not a transplant or the son of slaves — but a character born and bread in the very wellspring of humanity. In effect, it was like watching Rogers fight his way across war torn Europe or Thor charging along the Bifrost: a hero bound so intrinsically to a particular time and place as to be defined by it. And, let me tell you, it was glorious to see.
I cannot speak to “the Black experience,” either in America or in terms of seeing this movie for the first time. It is simply a perspective that I simply do not have. I’m a White boy who grew up kitty corner to a corn field in Illinois. I can’t speak to some deeply personal experience upon seeing Wakanda for the first time, or T’Challa donning the Panther armor, or Shuri rolling out all of the new tech that she had designed for her brother.
They were all awesome, to be sure, and I loved every minute of them, but simply was not coming from a place where that meant something to me more than any other awesome thing that the MCU has done over the last decade. It’s the same to me as when Hulk tosses Loki around like a rag doll, Thor turns into Raiden in order to take down his despicable sister or Cap tiredly exclaims “I can do this all day” All marvelous moments, characters and locales, to be sure, but ones that were undoubtedly more meaningful to movie-goers who had waited their entire lives to see something exactly like that on the big screen.
And for many movie-goers, every piece of the movie was just as likely that exact, epiphanous moment when something that had always been missing from your experience is shot up fifty feet tall on the silver screen. Their every experience is proof positive that representation matters: why, for instance, we not only need Falcon, War Machine, Black Panther, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Shuri and Okoye, but also Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, Ironheart, X-23, Honey Badger, Miles Morales, Miguel O’Hara, Amadeus Cho, Nova and all the rest of Marvel’s colorful cast of interesting, well-written and diverse characters. The fact that they are such interesting and great characters in their own right should be enough, but their undeniable importance as big screen icons is all the more reason for it.
Black Panther was, and continues to be, a game changer. I don’t think that we’ll quite be able to appreciate just how important it is going to be until years after the fact. But, until then, we can appreciate it for what it is: easily one of the best-made superhero movies of all time, more than worth every last shred of praise it has ever received.