Some movies get discussed more for their significance than for their quality. A reviewer can feel churlish about this—about how implacably cultural or political criticism can convert questions about the work itself into questions about its reception. Are we discussing film X as a phenomenon, or as an experience of cinema? Yet some films really are noteworthy for what they represent, for what their popularity tells us about who and where we are.
By now everyone knows about the booming success of Black Panther, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s action epic featuring the Marvel Comics hero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966—the year the militant black-power group of the same name was founded. Two weeks into its run, Coogler’s movie—a film by a black director, with a nearly all-black cast—had grossed $750 million, and it’s clearly heading for the rarefied company of billion-dollar blockbusters. Of course, African Americans are no newcomers to cultural achievement and fame. But categories matter. A Grammy-winning singer or a slam-dunking NBA star is one thing; a comic-book superhero is another. And a comic-book superhero deployed by a black director to celebrate and exalt Africa is something else again.
That something else lies precisely in the unreality of a superhero—his mythic stature, which both reflects and requires an audience eager not merely to extend sympathy, but to submit. The superhero occupies a special position vis-à-vis the citizenry, one of vision, power, and the responsibility to protect: in a word, superiority. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are as Greek demigods among men. They are the ultimate first responders, in whom we put our sacred trust.
Who is eligible for that role? Who gets to dazzle, delight, and defend? For centuries African Americans, in the white imagination (which is to say, the dominant cultural imagination) didn’t qualify, and in fact possessed essentially the opposite role. Black Panther matters in a way so elemental it almost need not be said, which means that it should be said: a segment of our American population, enslaved and terrorized, and subsequently reviled and oppressed, now claims the sleek mantle of the superhero, and his sure command of our collective allegiance.
Commercially and artistically, Panther can be seen as the final liberation of the African American movie from marginal status. Yes, blaxploitation, bromance, and soul-sister movies have thrived, but only as niche phenomena—movies, from the white POV, “for them”—with no shot at blockbuster-level marketing, money, or audiences. Is this liberation something ’60s radicals would have called revolutionary progress? Well, times change, and the system is what it is; what you can’t overthrow, perhaps you can outsell. This is the way success is measured in marketplace America. And if Panther has anything, it is the look and feel of success.
It’s worth noting that there were earlier attempts to make this movie; Wesley Snipes tried in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but failed. One can cite any number of reasons why: computer-graphic imagery was still in its infancy, and comic-book-based movies were nowhere near as popular as they are now. But other explanations are political and racial. Would a mass white audience of thirty years ago been willing to embrace a black action hero? One obvious event has transpired since then: the election of a black president. Without Obama, perhaps, no Black Panther. Timing is everything, in politics and in Hollywood.