Meditations on ‘Black Panther’ and the Future of Black Superhero Movies

Why did it succeed where many other black superhero movies have failed?

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images Entertainment for IMAX

I wish I was white,” I said.

I was five, maybe six. As I watched Barney & Friends, I finally pinpointed what the children on screen had in common.

“Eric…,” my mom replied. I don’t remember her face right then. My eyes were still on the screen. But I knew she’d never said my name like that before.

When the first Black Panther teaser trailer hit the internet, I understood it was popular, but not necessarily the start of a phenomenon. The teaser garnered an incredible 89 million views in 24 hours, but 19 million of those views had come in its debut during the NBA finals — and at the time, the teaser for Thor: Ragnorok still held the record for the most views (136 million) in a single day. The reaction to the trailer was certainly promising, but if Thor — a character whose films weren’t exactly the heaviest box office hitters in Marvel’s arsenal — was still in the lead, then there was some room for considering the limits of Panther’s reach.

But slowly, as the film’s February premiere approached, it became obvious that Black Panther had struck a different nerve. Black Facebook groups coordinated attendance at the film’s opening-weekend release. Octavia Spencer spoke publicly about buying out theaters so disadvantaged kids could see it. A viral video emerged of black elementary school students breaking into joyful dance upon hearing that the school’s administration was treating them to Black Panther. Advanced ticket sales soared through the roof, outgrossing every other superhero movie in history. First-weekend domestic box office projections steadily rose from $100 million to $175 million. (A fraction, of course, of the $202 million three-day and $242 million four-day weekend it would go on to earn.)

Despite the seemingly pent-up demand for a black-centric comic book movie, Black Panther is far from the first superhero film to deliver prominent black representation. So why was anticipation for this particular black superhero movie sky-high? What made Black Panther any different from its multiple predecessors? Why is Black Panther being celebrated online as a film that Hollywood finally made?

Those questions bring to mind the black superhero films that Black Panther eclipsed. The Wesley Snipes–led Blade in 1998 was successful enough to inspire two sequels, and the trilogy made more than $400 million worldwide. Time has not been kind to 1997’s Spawn (starring Michael Jai White), a movie about a black hero with demonic powers that was poorly received by critics and audiences alike. Further, 1993’s The Meteor Man (starring Robert Townsend), 1994’s Blankman (starring Damon Wayans), and 2008’s Hancock (Will Smith) were all comedies that, to varying degrees, satirized the superhero genre, therefore avoiding fully celebrating black participation in it. Worse still were movies like 1997’s Steel (starring Shaq) and 2004’s Catwoman (starring Halle Berry), both abjectly unpopular takes on existing comic book characters. The history of big-budget black superhero movies has been, at best, checkered, which may very well be why a movie that had all the makings to be popular and good made Black Panther irresistible to black moviegoers, who were a majority of the film’s first-weekend demographics.

In contrast to its forerunners, Black Panther is the first of its kind to be part of an extended cinematic universe. (And the most lucrative movie universe of all time, at that!) After 17 Marvel Cinematic Universe films starring all-white leads — some involving superheroes as D-list as the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Scott Lang version of Ant Man — one starring a black superhero felt way overdue. While the appearances of fun characters like War Machine from Iron Man 2, Falcon from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok were respectable, they only whetted our appetites for a superhero feature with a black top billing. To Marvel’s credit, Civil War had perfectly teed up Black Panther with a glorious introduction to the film’s star, T’Challa: a mysterious, poised, and complex antihero with a stylish suit and tons of dramatic potential.

And T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) wasn’t just a black superhero when we first met him—he was black royalty. As important as slave narratives, ghetto narratives, and oppression narratives can be in telling black stories, they’ve left plenty to be desired when it comes to films of black empowerment, black beauty, and, perhaps most rarely, black reverence. T’Challa’s connection to Wakanda promised an esteeming of black people — as kings, queens, warriors, scientists, sages. (Even photos of the Black Panther red carpet premiere, which featured the film’s stars in garb evoking African royalty, were arresting.) The DNA of the film insists, both inherently and overtly, that black lives matter. And that they should be celebrated. In a time when an entire political bloc argues otherwise, Black Panther was bound to resonate.

Photos by John Liebenberg/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty (Left-Center) and Tebogo Letsie/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty (Right)

I was 13, maybe 14. Mom and I sat on the couch, watching the closing credits of Bring It On. When Eliza Dushku appeared on screen, I told Mom that I found her attractive. When Gabrielle Union appeared, I said nothing.

“She’s cute too, right?” Mom asked.

I could hear it in her voice. She couldn’t remember the last time I called a black actress pretty.

Until Black Panther, every single one of Marvel’s solo superhero films had solely male leads, and by the time Captain Marvel (starring Brie Larson) finally gets here in March 2019, it will have been almost two years since the release of DC’s widely beloved Wonder Woman movie. Let’s just say Marvel hasn’t set the bar too high. No one would have blinked if Black Panther had stopped merely at fleshing out a compelling, captivating black male hero.

But here we are. In addition to enriching T’Challa with substantive inner conflict and imbuing Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) with righteous rage over black oppression, the Marvel machine has offered a movie in which black women are not just present, but varied and abundant. Not only is the “token black guy” trope (a phenomenon in which a single black character is inserted for diversity) made impossible through the sheer number of black men in Black Panther, but the idea of a lone woman shouldering the movie’s significant female representation — as Black Widow did for so many Marvel films — is gleefully abandoned.

The Dora Milaje as depicted in art by Scot Eaton and in ‘Black Panther,’ (Wikimedia, fair use)

The women of Wakanda are indispensable throughout. On top of making up the entirety of the royal guard, the Dora Milaje, Wakandan women are our inventors, our council members, our agents, and our loving parents. Yes, they’re looking out for their king T’Challa’s, interests, but they also have other roles. They innovate new technology for the benefit of their people, work tirelessly to protect national security interests, and strive to better the lives of the underprivileged. We’d be hard-pressed to find a better tribute to black women in any other blockbuster movie. A black man may have been our initial hook when T’Challa first appeared in Civil War, but black female characters proved to be a powerful incentive to see Black Panther as opening weekend approached. (Which explains why Fandango reported that 86 percent of patrons who bought advance tickets to the film expressed excitement for the Dora Milaje.) The promotional material and advance reviews playing up the integral role of black women was likely crucial to Black Panther’s box office success. And the movie itself delivered on that promise. Black Panther went above and beyond simply venerating black men for once; black humanity itself was put on display in all its brilliance, its beauty, and — at long last — its breadth.

I was eight, maybe nine. Maybe 13. Maybe 18.

We were in front of the TV.

“Where are the black people?” Mom asked.

The question was always the same.

Biggest February opening weekend, biggest nonsequel opening weekend, biggest solo superhero movie launch ever, and the second-biggest Marvel movie opening of all time. Nearly $800 million grossed, and likely $1 billion by the end of its stint in theaters. The list goes on for Black Panther’s record-breaking run. A total game-changer, people say, especially now that it’s proving formidable overseas — where Hollywood has long insisted black movies would struggle to sell.

But here comes the hard part.

Plenty of black-focused movies have done well overseas before. Straight Outta Compton made $201.6 million worldwide, Hidden Figures made $217 million, and the Bad Boys movies made $414.7 million — just to name a few. But the pervasive mantra in Hollywood that “black films don’t travel” is a stubborn one, and it’s possible that Black Panther could be seen as an outlier — supported by the massive Marvel marketing machine, no less. With a myth so intractable, Black Panther’s success is likely the starting line, not the finish line, when it comes to Hollywood seeing black films differently. Unlike white films, black movies are disproportionately punished for their failures.

Further, as much credit as Marvel may deserve for putting $200 million into a black superhero film, that doesn’t mean a golden age of black Marvel superhero films is just around the corner. We can surely expect Black Panther sequels, but outside of Wakanda, there isn’t quite a wealth of well-established, standalone black Marvel superheroes to bring to the big screen. Some of Marvel’s better-known black characters have been put on television, but that’s likely where they will stay. Marvel is notorious for keeping its movie and TV content separate, despite the fact that both forms technically take place in the same universe. From Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to The Defenders to Runaways, Marvel’s TV shows may vaguely allude to the movies in recent years, but the company’s strategy has bluntly avoided the reverse. Marvel has already relegated one of its most popular black heroes — Luke Cage — to small-screen status in his eponymous Netflix series. Cloak of Cloak and Dagger might have been an interesting addition to the big-screen Marvel pantheon, but like Luke Cage, he too will be getting the TV treatment in an upcoming series on Freeform.

Marvel has just purchased the rights to the X-Men, the famous mutant superhero team that typically includes Storm, a Kenyan princess who can control the weather. But it’s unlikely that Storm will get her own movie anytime soon, as Marvel’s formal onscreen induction of the formerly Fox-owned X-Men is years away, and Storm is rarely separated from her ensemble in any medium. If Marvel chooses to pursue a Young Avengers movie down the line, perhaps the black teenage hero Patriot would lead the group on a big-screen canvas, but that character is also unlikely to be separated from his ensemble. Because black Marvel characters are still few and far between, there just aren’t many to choose from.

With that said, will other studios replicate Marvel’s Black Panther approach or success in the foreseeable future? Blumhouse is now developing a Spawn reboot, but its titular black character will be an unspeaking antagonist à la Jaws or The Thing. Sony, oddly enough, is releasing a feature-length animated film starring the black and Latino Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse late this year. It appears that the film is divorced from both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even its own live-action superhero universe (involving movies starring the Spider-Man villains Venom, Silver Sable, and Black Cat). Spider-Verse is a step in the right direction, of course, but the release seems far from a commitment to a black Spider-Man. Should the movie fail, it would fade out with little risk — canonically unattached to any other established properties. If Sony instead made Miles a live-action character, able to interact with other shared-universe allies and enemies, then we’d have a bigger reason to praise the studio for racially bolder choices.

Maybe there are more possibilities when it comes to Warner Bros.’ DC Comics characters. Victor Stone, or Cyborg, a black superhero with robotic enhancements in DC’s Justice League movie, is nominally scheduled to have his own movie released in 2020. But with the strikingly modest splash Justice League made at the box office and the disappointingly bland introduction of Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) in that film, Warner Bros. is likely aware of how little excitement the character would garner compared to Black Panther. The future of Cyborg’s film probably isn’t as bright as it had been before Justice League, though there have been no announced delays.

DC’s Green Lantern Corps theatrical film (scheduled for 2020) will finally introduce the famous John Stewart, a black Marine who first began crime-fighting in space in early 1970s comics. Stewart was best popularized on Cartoon Network’s animated Justice League TV series in 2001. But according to Deadline, half of Corps’ screen time will go to white hero Hal Jordan (last played by Ryan Reynolds), the focus of the critically and commercially unsuccessful Green Lantern.

Interestingly, DC owns the rights to Milestone Media, an imprint spearheaded by black comic book creator Dwayne McDuffie that features an entire universe of a predominantly black cast of superheroes. This includes Icon, a Superman-like character whose extended life as a black civilian spans the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and modern times. Surely, his story might resonate as one that both acknowledges the trauma of black Americans and empowers them. Further, his sidekick is Rocket, a young black woman who, despite being a teenage mother, still manages to fight crime. Perhaps a movie featuring such a character, done right, could address the shame and stigma foisted upon young black mothers and still shine a rare light upon them as heroes, rather than disappointments in our society.

Milestone’s most popular character is Static, who easily shows the most promise as the next black Big Thing, if DC Entertainment were looking to replicate Black Panther’s success. The character was the star of Static Shock, a beloved animated TV series from the 2000s that focused on high school student Virgil Hawkins’ rise to a successful superhero career as a vigilante who controls electricity. Static has appeared in his own DC comic book, as well as animated shows like Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice. DC would be smart to consider a fun, dynamic, whip-smart character like him for adaptation. But thus far, there has been absolutely no word on Static or other Milestone characters being considered for the big-screen treatment.

Warner Bros. also has the opportunity to bring an incredibly ripe black DC character to the silver screen with Vixen, an African-born superhero whose animal-based powers are derived from the continent’s mystic forces. Vixen’s potential for success has already been explored: She appeared in her own animated web series on CW Seed in 2015 and showed up on Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited series in the 2000s, and live-action versions of Vixen were brought to life on CW’s Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow. If DC is looking for an African-centric black hero in response to Black Panther or the Dora Milaje, Vixen would be the perfect pick.

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Though it may take a while for the superhero film industry to adjust course after Black Panther, TriStar Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony) has already jumped at the chance with an announced black historical feature. The studio has just acquired the rights to The Woman King, which will star Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o as warriors in an African all-female military unit. Cathy Schulman, one of the film’s producers, said, “Black Panther just showed us how the power of imagination and lore could reveal a world without gender and racial stereotypes. The Woman King will tell one of history’s greatest forgotten stories…[about] an army of African warrior women [who] staved off slavery, colonialism and inter-tribal warfare to unify a nation.”

Indeed, while there are no cobbled paths forward into the new age of black superhero films we’ve all been waiting for, Black Panther may have paved the way for brighter possibilities than before. It will take patience and persistence among black creators and black audiences alike — and certainly more than Marvel muscle to move this mountain — but the shift may have already begun. Whatever happens next, Black Panther, and the dedicated moviegoers who flocked do it, have given us all reason to hope.

My 31st birthday. Mom sat next to me in the movie theater.

Every time she exclaimed in excitement at seeing the Dora Milaje fight on screen, I stole glances at her.

And I couldn’t help but smile.