This post was originally published at smerconish.com
Marvel’s Black Panther, the first black super hero to be featured in his own movie, hits the big screen this weekend. Between fan excitement, interest from the black community, and strong reviews, it’s expected to be one of the biggest comic book movies ever. A film of this magnitude, popularity, and cultural significance raises a question: Is Black Panther’s race the character’s defining quality or does race just add color to the story?
A little bit of comic book and Hollywood history first. Comic books and now comic book based movies have had a long and complex relationship with both race and social issues. Sometimes, they’ve been progressive; other times, not as much. Despite that comics had been popular for over a decade, the first real instance of a black character in a mainstream comic was in 1953 when Harvey’s Sid Jacobson introduced Little Audrey’s friend Tiny. In a conversation with Jacobson, he said that the introduction of Tiny was “a conscious effort to include a black character who would be accepted as one of the friends.” To that effort, outside of color, Tiny and his family were portrayed as the same middle class family as the other characters’. The idea, according to Jacobson, was to “show black Americans the same as everyone else, not has being different,” which of course wasn’t the reality of the 1950s. That said, the inclusion of a black character was done with specific intent, by what Jacobson described as a “socially conscious group.”
This minimal progress slowed, though. McCarthyism and the development of the Comics Code in the 1950s limited what could be presented in comic books. Almost anything that was considered anti-American was banned, a decision which helped increase the popularity of Superhero’s since they could be written to defend the American way against cartoonish villains.
However, with the social upheavals of the 1960s, the comics once again started to deal with social issues in America. In 1966 Marvel Comics introduced Black Panther, the first black super hero, at first as a supporting character in the Fantastic Four and then as a full-fledged member of The Avengers in 1968.
Tellingly of the times, Black Panther wasn’t conceived by an African-American (the industry still didn’t welcome to people of color as employees). Rather, two middle-aged Jewish guys developed the character based mostly on what they thought would be acceptable and empowering to the black community. In doing so, though, they employed some typical stereotypes. They presented T’Challa’s native land of Wakanda as a mineral rich African country that was shut off from the rest of the world to protect its resources from being stolen. Although Wakanda was the world’s most technologically advance society, evidence by the flying car T’Challa presented to the Fantastic Four in his introduction, the artwork depicting Wakanda was seemingly inspired by the Tarzan movies. Politically-speaking, the government of Wakanda was a monarchy, unlike the United States and much of the white world of that time. Interestingly enough, even though Wakanda’s technology was 100 years more advanced than the rest of the world, one of the reasons that T’Challa left Africa was to study at colleges in the U.S. As the character developed, there were attempts to bring in more socially conscious motivation such as Black Panther’s fight against the Ku Klux Klan. However, when that story line was met with resistance by a significant number of white readers, it was dropped.
As readership of comics declined and super heroes transitioned to the big screen, the needs of movie industry rather than the development of characters became more paramount. Hollywood became more derivative as it became corporate, and whatever sold more tickets was the path to be taken.. As a result, whenever a comic book based movie would alter its tone and meet with success, the rest of the industry would follow behind.
The last quarter of the 20th century was dominated by Superman and Batman, different in tone with Warner Bros’ Batman being darker and grittier, but with its campy styled villains. Then in the 2000s, the Marvel characters, keeping the flavor of the comic books, started to dominate theaters, each one bigger, better and louder, but mostly sticking to the fun world of the comics, with any socially relevant thought being either accidental or a set-up for a joke.
Christopher Nolan changed that dynamic for a short period with his dark and dramatic Batman trilogy, in which everything felt like a commentary on our chaotic world. With its huge success, the series turned Superman and the DC Universe darker and ultimately less appealing.
That is, until Marvel again showed the new path. With Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr.’s throwing off laugh generating one-liners, the Guardian of the Galaxy’s banter between Chris Pratt and a talking raccoon and the R-rated and fourth wall breaking Deadpool, humor was the way to go.
And now we have Black Panther. The movie will undoubtedly be a success given its early ticket sales. The real question is, will it cause Hollywood to look at it a new off-ramp or will it be considered a one-off? With not only a black lead character, but the entire world of Wakanda populated by faces and looks that viewers do not see frequently enough in mainstream films, are the studios prepared to make big budget mainstream movies, where most of the white actors are in supporting roles? Hamilton did it on Broadway, so maybe there’s hope for Hollywood, too.
Besides its expected boffo box-office, one wonders how Black Panther will be perceived in the longer run, not just by the studios but by the public in general and African-Americans in particular. Will the audiences have the same “yes, finally, I can relate” feeling that women had coming out of Wonder Woman? Will there be some feelings of uncomfortable stereotyping, whether minimal or unintended that will cause intellectual discussions as well as social media outrage? Will studios rush to feature more characters of non-white backgrounds to the growing roster of super heroes, or will they make the same mistake the comic book writers did at different points and turn too far away from social issues?
The immediate impact of Black Panther, at least on first blush, is that it combines the best of escapist comic book movies with an acknowledgement that those movies haven’t been equally representative in the past. The bigger question is what will that mean for the film industry going forward. Though the movie going audience is now worldwide constituting people of every race, religion, gender and ethnic background, the industry itself is a reactionary one in which large corporations greenlight movies not on artistic and intrinsic value but based on the bottom line. The predicted monetary success of Black Panther will ensure a second Black Panther. Whether that results in more films, in all different genres, created around characters who just happen to be of color is anyone’s guess.