Now, I tend to harp on the problems in Hollywood and/or the comic book industry bc I care. I care about movies. I care about comic book characters. And I care about racial and gender diversity in both. I want things to be better. I want greater representation (not just of women and PoC, but also queer and disabled people, and more still; but that’s a subject for a different post). Not just for my benefit. Not just for the benefit of others whose opinions align with mine on this subject. I also want greater representation bc it is important for future generations, as cultural anthropologist Michael D. Baran explains:
It is critical that children see all sorts of people playing both the good and the bad roles in media. Otherwise, they may take those absences as meaningful and it may affect how they understand social categories. And it is certainly important for kids to be able to identify with heroes that they feel represent who they are as people.
For very young kids, this might or might not fall out along racial lines and we must be careful not to impose our reification of race onto their knowledge. But we might as well err on the good side, by having a diversity of heroes for people to relate to – not just racially, but also in terms of gender, religion, body type, etc.
While Marvel Studios has much work to do in diversifying its interconnected universe, there are some bright spots on the horizon, and I think there is cause to have some degree of optimism that things are getting better (even if getting to better is like swimming uphill in a tar pit).
I’m optimistic because the Netflix series Jessica Jones was an intense, well acted, rollercoaster of a series that I loved from start to finish. Jessica Jones was presented as a strong, flawed, and three-dimensional character. The widespread acclaim of the show led to the quick announcement of a second season (speaking of which, I need them to announce *when*). On the big screen, I’m optimistic because 2019 sees the release of Captain Marvel, which will mark the first feature length MCU film with a woman in the starring role. Based on the Marvel Comics superhero (formerly known as Ms. Marvel/Binary/Warbird), this movie has the potential to position Captain Marvel as the premier female superhero of Marvel (in a way comparable to Wonder Woman’s position at DC). Though no actress has been cast in the title role, I am hopeful that this movie and this character will receive the respect they both deserve. Back on television, all 13 episodes of the Mike Colter starring Netflix series Luke Cage (which has been likened to the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire) drop on September 30. In the last decade, I’ve gone from ambivalence toward Cage to a fan of the character (writer Brian Michael Bendis may do a lot of things I don’t like, but his treatment of Cage has been exemplary). And then there’s the Black Panther, Marvel’s first black superhero. Seeing what Marvel has planned for the King of Wakanda between the comics and the big screen ought to please a great many Panther fans. I know I’m excited.
The Black Panther movie doesn’t drop until February 2018, and aside from who plays the title character (Chadwick Boseman) and who’s directing (Creed’s Ryan Coogler), we don’t know much about it. To be honest, I really don’t know what to expect, as Marvel has no track record of films starring PoC that can fill me with confidence. For movies starring white men, I can do that. After all, the Iron Man movies ranged from pretty good to really good. The Thor movies were ok to pretty good. Guardians of the Galaxy was awesome. Ant-Man was surprisingly good. Avengers shocked the shit out of me with how amazing it was (I’m biased though, bc Avengers is my favorite superhero team). And even though Avengers 2 is generally considered weaker than its predecessor, it is still damn entertaining. All those movies starring white men have produced a track record where one can look and say with a fair degree of confidence that future movies involving white male characters from Marvel Studios stand a chance of being at least good, if not great. As for directors, well…Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, the Russo Brothers, Peyton Reed, James Gunn, Kenneth Branagh, and Alan Taylor all have a good degree of experience as directors. One can look at their prior work and come away with an idea of the quality of their directorial abilities. While Creed was generally well-received, the only other feature-length film Coogler has to his name is Fruitvale Station. He doesn’t have a lot of movies under his belt. He doesn’t have a body of work to look back at the way the other directors of MCU movies do. What, if any, effect could his lack of directorial experience have on Black Panther? Isn’t it reasonable to have a degree of apprehension?
I find that apprehension diminishes when I recall Marvel’s track record of finding good directors for their films. Even though Ryan Coogler doesn’t have a lot of directorial experience, based on the other MCU films, I have faith (can’t remember the last time I uttered those words) that Marvel has made a good choice in picking him to helm this flick.
Now what about Chadwick Boseman?
I have to admit, I have some reservations. They are based on not having been exposed to him before, rather than him not having any acting experience. I know precious little about him. I haven’t seen him in any movie or tv show (that I can recall), so I know nothing of his acting abilities. I do know that the comic book version of the Black Panther is not only a king, but he is a master tactician and strategist, one of the brightest minds in the Marvel Universe, a hand-to-hand combatant on par with Captain America or Iron Fist, and a deeply spiritual man who exudes confidence (which sometimes appears to border on arrogance). While I’m uncertain how well Boseman can pull off most of those traits, if the following clip is any indication, he has me convinced he can play a strong warrior in battle:
Watching the above clip whets my appetite for the rest of the fight (hell, the rest of the *movie*). What’s more, I like the choice of giving the Black Panther a fighting style-similar to capoeira-that has yet to be seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It adds to his uniqueness. As if that weren’t enough, it’s Boseman himself in the Vibranium-weave suit and claws (at least in the clip above), not a stuntman, which means the man has moves! I have a high degree of confidence in his ability to portray the Panther as a skilled combatant. Of course, there’s more to the Black Panther than a guy in a cool suit who fights well, so it remains to be seen if Chadwick Boseman can do the character justice. Tentatively though, I’m confident. Similar to the hiring of Coogler as director, I trust Marvel at this point to hire actors who will do-at the least-a good job (and I’m hopeful for a great job from Chadwick Boseman).
The big screen is not the only place fans of the Black Panther can enjoy the character. Last month, Marvel Comics launched an all-new Black Panther ongoing series (which probably wasn’t meant to coincide with the first cinematic appearance of the character; nope, not at *all*). Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a highly respected journalist, author, educator, and one of the leading writers on contemporary social issues such as race in the United States, and illustrated by long-time industry artist Brian Stelfreeze, the new series launched with projected first issue sales north of 300,000 units. For those who don’t read comic books, that is phenomenal. Most monthly comic books don’t crack 50,000 units. Best selling comics are lucky to top 100,000 units. 300,000 units is monumental. Especially for a comic book starring a black man. This being a first issue, and one that was heavily advertised, sales were bound to be high, but Marvel has to be extremely proud to see such numbers (and also proud to have acquired Coates as writer). I know I am (though I’m dreading the second issue drop, which is standard in the comic book industry). Coates is joined on the book by Brian Stelfreeze, a longtime comic book artist whose work is definitely eye-catching. Looking through the first issue, it is apparent Stelfreeze is adept at drawing all manner of humans, as well as animals and technology. The pair have crafted an intriguing, visually stunning book set firmly in the current continuity of the Marvel Universe. The book is filled with political, social, and familial drama and I though I think T’Challa is going to experience much hardship and heartache, I suspect by the end of this initial 11-part story, he’s going to be positioned as Marvel Universe mover and shaker he deserves (you can check out the first issue online or find a comic book store near you).
But wait. There’s more. Not only can Black Panther fans enjoy the cinematic debut of the character in Captain America: Civil War. Not only can they enjoy an all new ongoing series from Marvel Comics featuring the character. Fans of the character, whether young or old can also purchase this amazing sixth scale collectible figure from Hot Toys.
Hasbro has also released the Marvel Legends Civil War Black Panther figure to coincide with the movie. There was an outcry after Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron were released, bc toy manufacturers and Marvel failed to create merchandise featuring the two most prominent female characters in both movies. There’s a part of me that wonders if Marvel learned their lesson by not releasing Black Widow and Gamora toys for kids. I don’t know if the thinking was “boys would not be interested in female-coded toys” or “girls don’t play with toys”, but in any event, consumers were not happy. The situation isn’t exactly the same, as Black Panther is a male character, where Black Widow and Gamora are females. I’m hoping whatever executives are in charge of decision making looked at the frustration expressed by consumers over the lack of Black Widow and Gamora toys, and decided “hey, let’s make some Panther merchandise so we don’t go through that again”. In a more just world, yeah, that’s what they said. In this world, however, they were probably looking to maximize profits. Either way, at least we’re getting BP merchandise. I suspect that will please fans of all ages.
Whether its the lack of feature films starring women or the erasure of People of Color from their own narratives, sexism and racism have long troubled the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As with society at large, progress comes, albeit gradually. I sincerely hope that Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther is well received in both the upcoming Captain America: Civil War as well as the character’s solo movie in 2018, bc I want Marvel to reach into its vault and bring more of its characters to the big screen. They’re more likely to do that if Black Panther is well received.
If When that happens, I look forward to seeing greater diversity in the MCU films. There are wealth of interesting non-white, non-male characters at the disposal of Marvel Studios and I’d like to see them make the move from comics to film. And I imagine a great many people share in that sentiment.