Ryan Coogler’s personal connection to ‘Black Panther’ sets a new gold standard for superhero films.

Ryan Coogler may have made a name for himself crafting stellar character-driven films like Fruitvale Station and the Rocky sequel Creed, but his deep connection to Marvel’s Black Panther provides a perspective on superhero movies that hasn’t been tapped into until now. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Coogler declared Black Panther to be his most personal film to date, reiterating his sentiments from over a year ago.

Coogler told the SMH:

“To me [Black Panther] deals with the answer to a question that I’ve been asking myself since I was very young — what does it mean to be African? That idea, that concept, I was very interested in and drawn towards.

[…] I was able to explore that in making this film. It enabled me to fulfil a longlife dream of going to the continent of Africa — researching — for the first time. The things that I learned about the continent and the things that I learned about myself were invaluable. I tried to put some of that energy into the project.”

The fact that a similar personal investment to Coogler’s hasn’t been echoed in superhero movies before isn’t so much appalling as it is unsurprising but disappointing. Ultimately, it does come down to which characters get to be onscreen and whether filmmakers feel a need to expound on different cultural boundaries than what’s been presented as the norm. Superhero films have been whitewashed for decades. Whitewashing roles in the way of Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange is one thing; white voices being constantly prioritized is another, plain and simple.

Audiences are taught to see some kind of so-called “universality” in this industry practice of pushing white narratives. Obviously, we have the propensity to identify with stories, regardless of whether our heroes don’t look like us; I mean, we have to take what we’re given. But the broad strokes of many blockbusters can feel cold and depersonalized, possibly explaining why so many studios invest so much in big movies only for them to do poorly with critics.

Usually, even in big tentpole movies, it’s the narratives that hit some kind of specificity that feel the most relatable; because they come from a place of reality. On the topic of identification and personal connection, Coogler says:

“You can connect to a character that doesn’t look like you. I’ve connected with Batman and Superman and the X-Men. I read all of those books and loved those movies but to see a hero that looks like you is an added benefit that does wonders in terms of experiencing a film. The value of that can’t really be quantified.”

And as Scott Weinberg recently tweeted:

Having to constantly fight tooth and nail for representation is tiring. Hence, it’s easy to rejoice when studios do the bare minimum when it comes to inclusion. But that easy acceptance only reinforces the need for Black Panther to succeed; in order to re-determine the public’s perception of a cool, exciting superhero film.

Thankfully, Black Panther is doing perfectly fine, even despite the efforts of some disgruntled groups of fanboys to derail its achievements. The film is carrying forward a new legacy for Marvel that will hopefully have a ripple effect on other franchises looking to make stories actually diverse. Thor: Ragnarok was a delightfully light and quirky take on the god of thunder that wasn’t devoid of personality, and Black Panther is primed to go down a similar, if more serious, path.

Crucially, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of self-seriousness in Black Panther that can plague many superhero films and TV shows. All the trailers and TV spots make the movie look sleek, luscious and absolutely fun. The politically charged nature of Black Panther isn’t a direct response to any one movement happening within the film industry or otherwise. Rather, taking universal themes such as identity, heritage and cultural touchstones and placing them in a more streamlined context will ultimately situate Black Panther as more real and modern than its Marvel predecessors. This is in spite of the high-concept technology and obviously fictional parameters of superhero movies. As Coogler points out:

“The thing about this movie and this story is it could be released at any time and it would be relevant.”

It is abundantly clear that Black Panther is much more than the typical action-adventure romp. At the moment, there hasn’t really been a superhero film that really celebrates both difference and unity as much as the film seems to. We could very well catch a wonderful glimpse into the very future of superhero blockbusters when Black Panther hits cinemas on February 16.

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