That was the moment Coogler discovered the Black Panther.
While in film school at University of Southern California, where he graduated in 2011, that love of comics remained — and after Marvel Studios started its connected cinematic universe with 2008’s box office hit “Iron Man,” Coogler began imagining that one day he might direct a superhero movie.
Coogler’s dreams and Marvel’s aspirations would eventually meet, helping to bring the greatest black superhero to film. His “Black Panther,” which comes out this Friday, has gotten over-the-top reviews and is expected to bring in $165 million on opening weekend.
In Atlanta, while filming pickups for his 2015 hit “Creed,” Coogler began receiving calls from Nate Moore, the only African American producer at Marvel Studios. Moore had just seen Coogler’s 2013 directorial debut, “Fruitvale Station” with Joe Robert Cole, who would go on to co-write “Black Panther” with Coogler. Moore was also in Atlanta, working on “Captain America: Civil War,” which marked the cinematic debut of the Black Panther played by Chadwick Boseman.
“We were so touched by it, it actually ruined a dinner because we had nothing to talk about,” Moore said.
Moore thought Coogler could be a good fit for a solo Black Panther film. Initial talks with Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) had fizzled. Moore knew the story would deal with black men, fathers and sons, experiencing loss — themes Coogler’s films dealt with impressively.
Despite those superhero dreams at USC, Coogler was noticeably hesitant. “He was sort of very rightly a bit wary of taking on a movie of this size because Marvel has a reputation of being tough on directors, and this was obviously much bigger than ‘Creed’ or ‘Fruitvale,’” Moore said. “But we knew that he could get the character’s story right and that was what would make everything else go.”
The two had dinner in Los Angeles, and Coogler would eventually meet with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
“I ended up really liking them,” Coogler said. “I had to wrap my head around if I was going to direct a movie when the lead character is already cast. I had to figure out [how] I want to make [“Black Panther”]. What type of themes I want to attack.”
Once he was hired, Coogler wanted to get to know his star, Boseman. He was already impressed with Boseman’s presence as T’Challa (the character’s name under the mask) and his inventing of a Wakandan accent.
“When I watched [“Civil War”] I was so excited,” Coogler said. “But I still had to make sure that he and I could get along. That’s the most important relationship on set.”
To go up against Boseman’s hero, Coogler cast his “Creed” and “Fruitvale” star Michael B. Jordan as “Black Panther” villain Erik Killmonger.
“[Killmonger] does horrific things,” Coogler said. “But there’s a certain part of [him] that’s altruistic in a way.”
Coogler, Cole and Jordan would craft Killmonger to explore one of the film’s deepest themes: the relationship between Africans and African Americans.
“T’Challa represents … an African that hasn’t been affected by colonization,” Coogler said. “So what we wanted to do was contrast that with a reflection of the diaspora. But the diaspora that’s the most affected by it. And what you get with that is you get African Americans. You get the African that’s not only a product of colonization, but also a product of the worst form of colonization, which is slavery. It was about that clash.”
Coogler’s interest in exploring such themes began in his youth, when his parents explained to him what it meant to be a black man in America.
“It’s something that you have to know. If you don’t know, it could cost you your life,” Coogler said. “In realizing that, the people who are telling me that I’m African American have never been to the continent of Africa. Realizing my grandma who’s 90 years old has never been to this place that we’re from. And me I hadn’t been [to Africa] until I took this movie.”
Coogler says Marvel Studios had no issues with him making a film that had a stronger sociological message than its typical film does.
“Very early on in the process of us talking, I was clear on the fact that I wanted to explore these themes. And they were totally game,” Coogler said. Disney and Marvel Studios wanted to break the mold. “I think they kind of have to, because they’ve done everything else so well and knowing Kevin [Feige], he’s not the kind of leader that wants to sit in a place of comfort.”
While filming in Atlanta, most of the “Black Panther” production crew worked 15 to 18 hour days. Coogler would always keep working after that.
“We would have to say, Ryan, you have to sleep in your bed you know,” Moore said. “And he would say, ‘Well, I’m going to be here until 3, so I’ll just sleep on the sofa.’ So we had to bring him a pillow and a blanket, because we knew otherwise he would sleep on the sofa. It wasn’t posturing. He just wanted to have the movie in his bones, so that when he got on set he was ready.”
“Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter says Coogler’s enthusiasm on set was contagious.
“Every time Ryan called me he’d say, ‘Ruth, did I wake you up?’” she recalled. “We’re both so around the clock. He’s just a sensitive person. He’s a human being. And that’s what comes out first. We’re trying to hit our mark and get to these deadlines. [But] he makes you take pause and really see things through a real honest lens.”
Something that will be new to many audiences is not just the nearly all-black cast in a superhero movie, but its sci-fi-influenced, Afrofuturistic world. Coogler is also aware of how seeing black actresses such as Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira in such heroic roles will impact young people.
Back when Coogler was a kid at the comic shop looking for a hero he could relate to, he understood the importance of the ones in real life.
“Our neighborhoods, our families were run by women who look like Lupita and Danai,” Coogler said. “That’s how my mom looks. I saw my mom be a warrior, a leader, a loving wife and a magic mom every day. … I wasn’t seeing that in pop culture.”