I loved “Creed,” director Ryan Coogler’s resurrection of the “Rocky” franchise, which paired Coogler’s muse, the tremendous young actor Michael B. Jordan, with Sylvester Stallone, to simultaneously brutal and tender effect as Rocky Balboa (Stallone) trains Adonis Johnson (Jordan), the son of his longtime rival and friend. And I adored Coogler’s debut feature, “Fruitvale Station,” which starred Jordan as Oscar Grant going through his day on Dec. 31, 2008, leading up to the moment when he would be shot to death on a BART platform in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. But while there are few things in mass culture right now that excite me more than the prospect of a new Ryan Coogler movie, I found my heart falling a little bit on Friday with the news that Coogler may be directing yet another franchise picture, Marvel’s forthcoming “Black Panther” movie.
The prospect of Coogler making a “Black Panther” movie raises the same issues that the prospect of casting a black actor as James Bond does. Both choices are rooted in the same direction. Do we want the best actors of color, and the most visionary filmmakers of color, to spend valuable years of their careers improving or improvising on mainstream franchises that have historically been dominated and defined by white artists? Or would pop culture be better off with Coogler, or actors like Idris Elba and David Oyelowo (who have been floated as potential Bonds), making original movies like “Fruitvale Station,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Selma”?
None of this should be taken to mean that I don’t care who directs “Black Panther.” I would hate for the first Marvel movie centered on a superhero of color to be a bust, just as I was anxious for “Jessica Jones,” the Netflix series about a troubled female superhero, to be a success in both feminist and superhero terms.
And just as “Jessica Jones” benefited from having a showrunner — Melissa Rosenberg — who understood the way her villain’s superpowers could be used to expand the conversation around consent and sexual assault, “Black Panther” deserves a director who understands what makes the character powerful, not simply as a talented fighter, but as the leader of an independent, wildly technologically advanced African country. (Obviously, I’m wildly excited for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run as a writer on “Black Panther.”) A recent Entertainment Weekly cover that featured a meowing Black Panther possessed of “claws that a Real Housewife would envy” shows just how badly it’s possible for the character to be misunderstood and emasculated.
But there’s a difference between standing as a bulwark against someone else’s bad ideas and getting to truly make a movie of your own.
The intense boxing sequences in “Creed” announced Coogler as a compelling action director, the rare person who can make a fight scene all about character while still landing powerful punches. But Marvel already has a strong house action style and a second unit director, John Mahaffie, who has helped define it in the “Avengers” films, the second “Thor” movie and “Ant-Man.” It would be a shame for Coogler to sign up to do another action movie in a franchise that might not let him bring his distinctive spin to the action sequences.
In a similar way, Marvel has shown some flexibility in tone, making lighter, sillier movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man,” and adopting a darker noir sensibility for its Netflix shows, which include both “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil.”
But references to politics have generally been tangential, with the exception of “Jessica Jones,” which can afford to be a bit more political because the streaming television business model is based more on a few fans’ deep attachment to a show than on a presumption of broad reach. Movie references to Tony Stark’s renewable energy experiments, or the creeping national security state that’s attempting to respond to the existence of superpowers, have functioned as window dressing or as mere plot engines. A “Black Panther” movie would presumably need to fit that broader-reach mold. And given that studios operate with the presumption that some increasingly valuable international audiences identify less with black actors and black characters, there are probably limits on just how engaged with racial and colonial politics a “Black Panther” movie can be.
If Ryan Coogler spends a big chunk of his young career making hugely popular blockbusters that accustom American audiences to identify with black male heroes, he’ll be making a major — and long overdue — contribution to American culture. But that contribution will be incomplete if it means that audiences will tolerate stories about people and communities of color only within the structure of major, established franchises. Oscar Grant ought to be as compelling as Adonis Johnson or T’Challa.