Is Marvel’s Black Panther A “Message” Movie?

Marvel’s Black Panther movie is poised to become Hollywood’s first big cultural moment of 2018, based upon glowing early previews and advance ticket sales. Critics and journalists are praising the film’s technical and artistic achievements via social media, while also saluting the film’s overt stances regarding gender, racism, and politics.

In other words, Black Panther isn’t just another superhero origin, it’s a movie that has something important to say.

Film has always been a vehicle for social commentary, but superhero films have typically ducked topical debates; this genre is (generally) more interested in delivering escapism and reapoing huge box office returns. Look, when you’re making nearly a billion per film, what’s the incentive to rock the boat? Marvel Studios surely knows this, but they realize that the industry cannot afford to rely upon formula and spectacle anymore (ask Warner Bros. how they’re feeling about Justice League).

Black Panther is a movie Marvel needed to make. And Marvel knows that now is the right time to make it.

Variety reports that Black Panther, which releases over the upcoming President’s Day holiday, is expected to crest $150 million during its opening weekend — possibly challenging Deadpool’s $152 million record from 2016. This shouldn’t shock anyone. Consider what Black Panther has going for it: a stellar cast, director, and writer — most of whom are black, which could expand its audience; Marvel’s first superhero film with an African-American lead, and it’s debuting during Black History Month; plus, the additional backdrop of racism, hatred, and bigotry, which is sadly prevalent in our contemporary culture and politics.

The old adage, “timing is everything,” could not be more apt in this case.

Black Panther arrives at a crucial and pivotal time in American cultural history. I don’t mean to over-inflate its importance, but the timing of the film’s release absolutely factors into its expectations. The narrative also smartly taps into the zeitgeist of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements too (That will be my one use of “zeitgeist” this year). Evidence of it’s impact can be seen in threats of boycott and review rating sabotage by some fringe elements — you don’t see this sort of thing every day. Black Panther is polarizing, and everyone suspecting it would be.

But how will Black Panther be perceived by mainstream audiences? Each year, one or more films seizes the mass market’s attention. Last year Get Out and Stephen King’s It were huge hits — the former because of its controversial subject-matter and the latter because of its offbeat filmmaking style — both were also solid, entertaining films. Such films connect and resonate with audiences for a variety of different reasons, and sometimes even take on lives of their own. For example, when Tim Burton’s Batman debuted in 1989, articles serious articles were written and interviews were conducted with actual psychiatrists, examining the nature of vigilantism and the insanity of dressing up like a bat.

There are plenty of indications that Black Panther will also resonate and connect with a very wide audience. Take a look at some of the many, many overwhelmingly positive Twitter comments:

Black Panther is phenomenal to say the least! All cylinders from direction, acting, production design, costumes and action are Aces!!!
Wilson Morales,

Black Panther is an excellent film with the most realistic Marvel villain… MJB’s villain origin story is an origin story of racism and broken promises. It felt prescient and familiar and too plausible… Probably the best sci-fi/fantasy meditation on Black fatherhood since DS9.
Kendra James, Marie Claire

Black Panther is incredible, kinetic, purposeful. A superhero movie about why representation and identity matters, and how tragic it is when those things are denied to people. The first MCU movie about something real; Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger had me weeping and he’s the VILLAIN.
Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times

Black Panther is exceptional — the James Bond of the MCU. You’ve seen nothing like this in a superhero movie. It’s bold, beautiful and intense, but there’s a depth and spiritualness that is unlike anything Marvel has ever done… It is a very proud movie and a female first movie, and I hope it crushes at the box office, paving the way for a future full of much greater representation.
Erik Davis, Fandango

Black Panther is riveting on many levels: visually astonishing, but more importantly so unpredictable. Incredible to watch a major blockbuster celebrate blackness while exploring its relationship to various facets of pop culture.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire

In the grand scheme of things, Black Panther probably won’t change the world… that said, it’s undeniable that Marvel has changed cinema, and their willingness to fold in real-world issues that touch culture, politics, and society into its narrative is bold (but necessary for the continued health of superhero movies). Investing powerful, underlying themes and messages into a movie’s fabric can catapult a film’s financial success and cultural popularity (see: The Godfather or Apocalypse Now).

Black Panther has already convinced many folks that this is THE movie they need to see this year. Some of these same folks might even exit the theater with new ideas, or at least a willingness to challenge existing beliefs. That’s as much (or more) than any film can hope for, and Black Panther seems poised to deliver.

SOURCE: TheWrap, Variety, RottenTomatoes, CBR, Marvel