According to DePaul University Associate Professor Blair Davis, Black Panther is worth all the hype.
“My students have been over the moon since last year,” he says. “Not only because there is a black superhero, but also because there is a big budget blockbuster with a huge Hollywood marketing campaign and toys and t-shirts.”
Davis has been a fan of comic books since he began buying them off the spinner racks at a local drug store in Burnaby, British Columbia, when he was a kid. Today, he is a PHd-wielding expert in the field, with published works including 2016’s Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page and the soon to be released Comic Book Movies, due out in March.
He’ll catch the premiere tonight, after participating in a panel discussion about “African Americans in Comic Books and Film” at the Cook County Bar Association.
Black Panther’s journey to the big screen began more than fifty years ago, when he appeared on the pages of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four in 1966. It is not the first big budget film to feature a black superhero — 1998’s Blade starring Wesley Snipes accomplished that — but it is remarkable for the people running the show.
“Black Panther is being treated like an ‘event’ movie by audiences for a few reasons,” Davis explains. “But the one reason that’s receiving the most hype in the media is because of its significance as a blockbuster superhero film with a predominantly black cast and a black director.”
The main character of both the original comic and the modern movie is T’Chala, who rules a fictitious African kingdom named Wakanda, which Davis describes as “one of the most technologically advanced nations in the Marvel universe.” The name “Black Panther” refers to a ceremonial title that must be earned, per Wakandan custom.
Davis believes that the movie accurately reflects the original story, which was written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby.
“I’ve read all the source material,” he says. “The film is very faithful to the particularities of how this African nation and its advanced technologies are represented on screen.”
Although T’Chala was not born with any sort of skyscraper-leaping genes, he wields the training and wears what Davis refers to as “a super suit” to become extra human. This follows a pattern that has emerged in modern superhero movies like Batman and Iron Man: science, rather than magic, is the stuff of heroic invincibility.
“We like to see bigger and better origin stories for how somebody got their powers,” he says. “Superheroes are a metaphor for our hopes and fears about what technology is doing to the human body and the planet.”
Black Panther’s origin story takes place in Africa, which adds even more cultural relevance to the film.
Most of the wardrobe was inspired by a combination of ancient African and Filipino artifacts, with a dose of good old American pop culture. According to costume designer Ruth E. Carter, “Afropunk was a source of inspiration as well.”
The ancestral look not only reinforces the epic shift that Black Panther is bringing to modern American film, but it also dials up the anticipation for many of Davis’ students.
“When I teach African American Cinema at DePaul, we look at this question of representation: How has your culture been recognized in the media and in film?” he says. “Here, we have a moment that is authentic in how it is portraying blackness because of the people involved in it.”
To many of them, he explains, Black Panther “feels more authentic because of the creators and the talent behind it.”
They’re not the only ones.
“Celebrities like Octavia Spencer are buying up blocks of tickets to give away for free so that black children can see a hero on screen who looks more like them than a Norse god or blond Super Soldier does,” he continues. “A big-budget film aimed at mainstream audiences in which black characters play a central role rather than just a supporting one is noteworthy.”
This is where Black Panther elevates onto the blockbuster plateau. No doubt, writer / director Ryan Coogler, actors Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, and several other cast and crew have inspired pride throughout the African American community. But the main reason the film is expected to gross $200 million over opening weekend is because it looks and sounds amazing.
Black Panther offers a temporary escape into a make believe world, and the hero is an African king.