LOS ANGELES — There have been 18 films made in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since “Iron Man” launched the franchise a decade ago. Those associated with the latest offering, “Black Panther,” knew going in that this would be the most important film in the series because it tackles so many social and political issues.
The new film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, deals with the same plot points addressed in the comics: racism, isolationism, gender equality, loyalty, family, power. The topics are part of the story of T’Challa, who is in line to become the king of Wakanda after the death of his father (as shown in “Captain America: Civil War”). The African nation has hidden itself away from the world and prospered because of an element known as vibranium. But, the country’s self-imposed seclusion is threatened when another, who would use the technology and power of Wakanda to change the world, challenges for the throne.
Touching on those issues looks as if the film was written to match issues going on in the world today, but that is only an extension of what has been happening for decades. That’s been the legacy of the character since being introduced in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four comics.
“The truth of the matter is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the whole Marvel bullpen created Wakanda and created T’Challa and created Black Panther and made him a smarter, more accomplished character than any of the other white characters in the mid-1960s,” said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “So they had the guts to do that in the mid-1960s. The least we can do is live up to that and allow this story to be told the way it needed to be told and not shy away from things that the Marvel founders didn’t shy away from in the height of the civil rights era.”
Dealing with all these issues makes “Black Panther” different than any of the past offerings. That’s why it was so critical for Feige and his team to find just the right person to direct the movie. They needed someone who would appreciate the comic book world while at the same time be able to handle real issues.
Coogler fit the bill. Not only did he grow up a lover of comic books, pop culture, action figures and video games, the Oakland, Calif., native showed with his “Fruitvale Station” an ability to deal with tough social issues. The 2013 film he wrote and directed was based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009.
“When I got older and realized that I wanted to make movies, I fell in love with internationalism and cinema that left with you with something to chew on, with something to think about,” Coogler says. “I never fell out of love with those types of films and those types of stories.
“I think the best versions of those stories do both things. And for me, when I came and sat down with Marvel, I was very honest with Kevin. I said I want to make a film that works on every level … and I want to make it with these themes and he was like, ‘Great, let’s go.’”
One of the biggest issues in “Black Panther” is the way women are depicted. As with the comic book, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is surrounded by strong female characters starting with his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and continuing through his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) and his royal guard.
Danai Gurira, who plays royal guard member Okoye, has been able to play a strong female character in a television series through “The Walking Dead.” Her Michonne is as strong and accomplished as any character on the show. But, she was surprised there would be a chance to play a strong female role in a feature film.
“When Ryan sat me down and talked to me about his vision, and the story, and the characters, and the women, I was just floored because you don’t actually get to hear that often. You don’t actually get sat down and hear that type of a vision,” Gurira says. “There’s so many great things I could say about how Ryan developed these women characters and allowed us to collaborate.
“I feel really blessed and excited.”
Wright adds that not only are the women strong, but the men are very supportive of that. This isn’t a case, she stresses, where the males feel threatened and try to undermine the women, but are behind everything they want to do, whether it be a fearless warrior or a technology whiz.
Her character is one of the best examples as she not only creates all of the weaponry that Black Panther uses but at the same time can show a very human side. It is Shuri who is often the first to take some of the wind out of her brother if he tends to get a little too pompous.
The strength Lupita Nyong’o, who plays royal guard member Nakia, saw in the film was it represents each female as a unique individual without pitting the women against each other.
“I think that’s a very, very powerful message to send to children, both male and female,” Nyong’o says. “I think often times in movies we fall into that trap where there’s very few of us and then we are against each other. There’s a competitive spirit and stuff like that and this film freezes all that.
“We see women going about their business and supporting each other, even arguing with each other. But still not being against each other and I think that’s extremely important. In this film there’s so many of us, we really get a sense of the fabric of Wakanda as a nation and we see women alongside men and we see how much more effective a society can be if they allow women to explore their full potential.”