Black Panther fans already are speculating about Oscar possibilities for 2019, but I believe the movie also merits one award this year: for zealous, take-no-prisoners promotion. The Disney and Marvel hype machines together have managed to create a superhero movie that everyone believes they have to see – and also praise.
Now I am aligned with those who like the film, but I still cannot recall any prior movie triggering such a journalistic and social media tsunami. And everyone connected with Black Panther from Bob Iger down has found a way to take a bow. Even that esteemed writer and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was inspired to describe the movie as “an ethno-sensitive weather balloon released in the pop cultural atmosphere to test which way the financial winds are blowing.”
The irony, however, is that a movie about an idyllic nation in Africa has come along at a moment when – in “real life” — much of that continent is now embroiled in a self-destructive wave of violence and corruption. More on that later.
How did it come about that Disney, Hollywood’s most risk-averse studio, decided to green light a $200 million movie with an all-black cast and black filmmaker? Movies of this genre supposedly meet box office resistance overseas. And domestic Internet trolls reportedly use Facebook to drag down scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
Kevin Feige, Marvel’s president, who has built an adulatory press following, applauds Iger for transforming Black Panther into “a company initiative.” Aside from high production costs, Black Panther has the most expansive ad budget and biggest line of merchandise of any Marvel non-sequel.
All this is remarkable given its history: Twenty years ago, Marvel considered selling the rights to every Marvel character — from Iron Man to Black Panther to Spider-Man — to Sony for $25 million. Though intrigued, Sony finally declined, wanting Spider-Man alone. As the Wall Street Journal reminded us last week, Sony’s fiscal conservatism blew its opportunity to wallow in the revenues of 17 releases grossing $13.5 billion. Now with Disney’s initiative to acquire Fox, nearly every Marvel superhero will live under one roof. The exception is the Spider-Man universe which Sony continues to mine, more successfully since Marvel’s Feige became part of the creative mix.
The tally on Black Panther continues to explode day to day. The movie took in almost $220 million domestic over the Presidents’ Day weekend making it the biggest February film debut ever, with overseas numbers equally propitious. CinemaScore and Rotten Tomatoes ratings are equally ebullient.
The response of mainstream critics has been supportive, even from those who habitually disdain superhero movies. Writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: “It wouldn’t be a Marvel production without manly skirmishes and digital avatars, yet in its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present.” Several commentators are putting Black Panther in an important historical context — arguing that the film is delivering a sense of self esteem, indeed of racial pride, to worldwide audiences. Its characters are struggling, not with the usual urban issues of drugs and crime, but with issues of dynasty and governance.
To be sure, a few timorous filmgoers have advanced some reservations. Though the movie’s protagonists keep reminding the audience that their kingdom is technologically well educated and advanced, its prosperity is based principally on vibranium, a mythic ore deposited by an errant meteor. Yet vibranium now is being stolen from the nation, as had happened with Africa’s other resources.
Further, if the country is so advanced, why does physical prowess still constitute the fundamental attribute of its leaders? As Abdul-Jabbar points out in The Hollywood Reporter, “I would have preferred to see a challenge that involved a combination of intelligence, wisdom and athleticism over just brawling. The fights undercut the logic of Wakanda being so technologically advanced.” The Marvel mandates call for action, and those mandates are served.
Paradoxically, even as Black Panther presents audiences with an almost idyllic African nation state, much of Africa itself is currently “heading back to hell,” says the front-page headline of The Economist, a respected conservative magazine. The collapse of the Congolese state has revived the blood conflict with its turbulent neighbor, Rwanda – a battle that resulted in as many as 5 million deaths between 1998 and 2003 alone. Kenya, too, is in turmoil and, meanwhile, South Africa has just rid itself of Jacob Zuma, ending a disastrous reign billed as “South Africa’s lost decade.” His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, faces a daunting challenge in reversing economic downturn and mounting crime. Black Panther has opened strongly in much of Africa, rivaling Fast and Furious at the box office in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.
Given all this, Africa needs its mythic Wakanda, just as the worldwide film audience needs the heroism of Black Panther. Disney and Marvel have good reason to celebrate the dazzling send-off of its “ethno sensitive weather balloon.”