After 24 long years in development, Marvel’s Black Panther has finally come to the big screen. Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Angela Bassett, and many other veritable who’s who of prominent African American actors, it's is the first superhero film that features a predominantly black cast.
"At this point, I think an African American writer-director is as key to this franchise as Patty Jenkins was being female to Wonder Woman. It makes sense in terms of material, tone, sensitivity, entertainment value - everything," says film contributor Ryan Jay.
Black Panther tells the origin story of its title character and introduces fans to Wakanda, a completely new world in the Marvel cinematic universe. Along the way, it breaks through many cultural and artistic boundaries including production design, costuming, vibrancy, and score, to name a few. "It really has carved out a completely new niche," notes Jay. "It is very well researched. It does draw back and is very grounded in the reality and realism of Africa."
Black Panther is expected to break box office records as the weekend continues. It holds a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score and has the most presale tickets of any non-Star Wars film, plus the highest presale of any superhero movie – Marvel or DC Films – to date.
According to Jay, Black Panther does more than show a superhero's fight of good vs. evil, it spotlights the issues of autonomy and cultural preservation with the need for social conscience.
"It is so interesting I think about art and entertainment, how almost at any point in history you can look at it and call it out as 'timely.' But in some cases it's glaringly timely, and I think for sure Black Panther was intentionally so," says Jay.
The villain Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan represents a type of vigilante fight against social injustices - from poverty to mass incarceration – that creates empathy rather than disdain. "That is very rare, I think not only in Marvel, but in any film, where you have a villain that you kind of feel for," notes Jay. "I think that's a great balance, too."
"Black Panther made some very, very strong political statements about nationalism versus patriotism, about serving your country versus saving your country, about where your loyalties actually lie and how your loyalty in action should be implicated or activated," he adds.
Ultimately, Jay says, it is the strength of the storytelling, performances, and art direction of the film that will not simply generate ticket sales, but earn the respect of audiences world wide.
"Here we have a great Marvel film that's as good as any Iron Man movie, any Thor, any Captain America, but it is predominantly black cast and it's going to break through to all audiences regardless of race and culture and that is a huge achievement," he says. "If entertainment can help people move in the right direction by touching them emotionally, there's no greater compliment, I think, to the creative team behind it."
Film critic Ryan Jay is a nationally syndicated radio host and resident reviewer on Channel 4’s The Morning Blend and Saturday news.