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ON THE TRAIL OF THE PANTHER

SIX FILMS TO WATCH BEFORE MARVEL'S 'BLACK PANTHER'

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
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By Jake Watt
1st February 2018

The Black Panther is the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, having debuted years before early African American superheroes such as Marvel Comics' the Falcon (1969) and Luke Cage (1972) or DC Comics' John Stewart in the role of Green Lantern (1971). The man behind the Black Panther mask is T’Challa, a king who rules over the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most advanced country in the Marvel universe; the isolationist nation is a fantasy of a prosperous, independent Africa unfettered by colonialism. Over the decades, T’Challa has earned a Ph.D. in physics from Oxford, battled the Ku Klux Klan, killed vampires in New Orleans, taught school in Harlem, and even married X-Men character Storm.

Wesley Snipes first mentioned his intention to work on a ‘Black Panther’ film in 1992, with that project going through multiple iterations over the next decade but never coming to fruition. A ‘Black Panther’ film was announced as one of the ten films based on Marvel characters that would be developed by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures in 2005, with Mark Bailey hired to write a script in 2011.

‘Black Panther’ was officially announced in 2014, with Chadwick Boseman (‘42’, ‘Get On Up’) first appearing in the role in ‘Captain America: Civil War’. By the end of 2015, director Ryan Coogler (‘Fruitvale Station’, ‘Creed’) had signed on, and additional cast members (such as Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker) came on board beginning in mid-2016.

After the events of ‘Captain America: Civil War’, King T’Challa returns home to Wakanda. But when villains Ulysses Klau (Andy Serkis, 'War For The Planet Of The Apes') and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, ‘Creed’, 'Fantastic Four') conspire to bring down the kingdom, T’Challa must team up - as the Black Panther - with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, 'The Hobbit' Trilogy, TV's 'Sherlock' and 'Fargo') and members of the Dora Milaje (Wakanda's special forces) to prevent a world war.

If you are interested in the journey it took to get this character to the screen or just enjoy gangster, action, historical or vampire movies, here are six films you should watch...

6) Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

With a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (‘Captain America: The First Avenger’, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’), this film featured a million superhero toys being thrown together and introduced two new action figurines, Black Panther and Spider-Man (Tom Holland, ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’), into the Marvel Cinematic Universe sandbox as a teaser for their own solo films.

While Ulysses Klau and Wakanda were briefly introduced in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’ provided Black Panther with a tremendous first appearance, showcasing his heritage, costume and superhuman abilities to legions of Marvel nerds. “We felt more pressure bringing Black Panther to screen than anyone else in the movie,” said Joe Russo in an interview with Time in May 2016.

To an entertainment giant like Disney, diversifying means appealing to a wider audience - and a bigger box office. “Hollywood lags behind other industries, and it’s incumbent upon us to push it forward. If we want to call these movies ‘mass appeal,’ then you have to create films with diversity in order to get that wide audience,” said Anthony Russo.

5) New Jack City (1991)
Director: Mario Van Peebles

Mario Van Peebles was one of the directors on the short list for ‘Black Panther’ while Wesley Snipes was attached. “They were trying to find the young, up-and-coming black directors,” Snipes said.

‘New Jack City’ is a gritty action gangster film based upon a screenplay by Thomas Lee Wright, and directed by Mario Van Peebles in his directorial debut, while also co-starring in the film. Wesley Snipes plays Nino Brown, a rising drug lord in New York City during the crack epidemic. Ice-T plays Scotty Appleton, a detective who vows to stop Nino's criminal activity by going undercover to work for Nino's gang.

Van Peebles had formed a friendship with Clint Eastwood (‘Sully’) when the pair made 'Heartbreak Ridge' (1986). When Van Peebles took the ‘New Jack City’ screenplay to Warner Bros., the studio was interested in the material, but weren't keen on having an unknown as the director/lead actor. Eastwood personally vouched for Van Peebles and told Warner Bros. to “give the kid a shot.” The success of the film launched Van Peebles's directing career.

Like many of the more socially conscious films made in the early 1990s, ‘New Jack City’ is also an indictment of the euphoria of Ronald Reagan's years as President - telling the true story of what that time was like for those living from paycheck to paycheck, or trying to live without one, and dealing with the invisible "war on drugs" which had little to no effect on anybody in inner-city neighbourhoods.

Would Van Peeples’ take on ‘Black Panther’ have been any good? No. His most action-packed film, the 1993 revisionist Western 'Posse', was described by Roger Ebert as "an overdirected, overphotographed, overdone movie that is so distracted by its hectic, relentless style that the story line is rendered almost incoherent." But Van Peeples did eventually make 'Panther' (featuring Angela Bassett) in 1995, which traced the Black Panther Party from its founding through its decline during the Black Power movement and its disenchantment with nonviolent resistance as a tool in the Civil Rights Movement.

4) Selma (2014)
Director: Ava DuVernay

By May 2015, Marvel had discussions with Ava DuVernay to direct 'Black Panther' or ‘Captain Marvel’ and by early July, DuVernay had passed on directing the film, explaining that: "It was a process of trying to figure out, are these people I want to go to bed with? Because it's really a marriage, and for this it would be three years. It'd be three years of not doing other things that are important to me. So it was a question of, is this important enough for me to do? At one point, the answer was yes because I thought there was value in putting that kind of imagery into the culture in a worldwide, huge way ... a black man as a hero - that would be pretty revolutionary. These Marvel films go everywhere from Shanghai to Uganda, and nothing that I probably will make will reach that many people, so I found value in that ... [but] it's important to me that [my work] be true to who I was in this moment. And if there's too much compromise, it really wasn't going to be an Ava DuVernay film."

‘Selma’ is based on the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo, 'A United Kingdom', 'The Butler') led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. Per its title, the film concerns King’s arrival in Selma, Alabama, where he mobilises the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to assist in the voting rights movement already in progress. “It can’t wait,” he tells Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, 'This Beautiful Fantastic', 'Michael Clayton') when the president asks him to sit on the issue; as King reasons, the safety of black citizens in the South is directly related to their ability to vote racist white politicians out of office.

DuVernay allegedly re-wrote screenwriter Paul Webb’s script to focus more on King’s story and less on LBJ as the proud, benevolent architect of the Voting Rights Act, nesting a small-scale character study into a larger survey of King’s efforts in Alabama and at the White House. Would DuVernay have brought a distinct visual style to a Marvel comic book action film? Probably not. A unique voice? Definitely.

3) Boyz in the Hood (1991)
Director: John Singleton

“I laid on him my vision of the film being closer to what you see now: the whole world of Africa being a hidden, highly technically advanced society, cloaked by a force field, Vibranium,” Wesley Snipes recounts of his conversation with director John Singleton in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in January 2018. “John was like, 'Nah! Hah! Hah! See, he’s got the spirit of the Black Panther, but he is trying to get his son to join the [civil rights activist] organisation. And he and his son have a problem, and they have some strife because he is trying to be politically correct and his son wants to be a knucklehead.’ “

"I am loosely paraphrasing our conversation. But ultimately, John wanted to take the character and put him in the civil rights movement. And I’m like, 'Dude! Where’s the toys?! They are highly technically advanced, and it will be fantastic to see Africa in this light opposed to how Africa is typically portrayed.' I wanted to see the glory and the beautiful Africa. The jewel Africa."

"I love John, but I am so glad we didn’t go down that road, because that would have been the wrong thing to do with such a rich project."

‘Boyz n the Hood’, released in 1991, was nominated for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay during the 64th Academy Awards, making Singleton the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director and the first African-American to be nominated for the award. Singleton wrote the film based around his life growing up and events that happened to people he knew.

Singleton's portrayal of social problems in inner-city Los Angeles takes the form of a tale of three friends growing up together “in the 'hood”. Half-brothers “Doughboy” (Ice Cube, 'xXx: Return of Xander Cage') and Ricky Baker (Morris Chestnut, 'Kick-Ass 2', 'The Call') are foils for each other's personality, presenting very different approaches to the tough lives they face. Between these two is their friend Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr., 'The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story', 'Jerry Maguire'), who is lucky to have a father, 'Furious' Styles (Laurence Fishburne, 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice', 'The Matrix'), to teach him to have the strength of character to always take responsibility for his actions.

The film remains one of the most poignant summaries of some of America's toughest internal problems - racism, violence, poverty, and drug abuse. It is not a hip-hop film, nor a detached story about "gang violence", instead it is a story about growing up in an urban war zone with a faceless enemy, where people do not value each other's lives at all and value their own lives only slightly more.

The film has been referenced many times in various media, including the video game ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, and music by Lupe Fiasco, Game, and Ice Cube himself, whose song, 'Check Yo Self', also references the film.

While John Singleton would have undoubtedly sucked as the director of 'Black Panther', his interest in an urban superhero dealing with ground-level problems recalls Marvel's successful approach recently to bringing 'Luke Cage' to life on Netflix.

2) Creed (2015)
Director: Ryan Coogler

In 2016, Coogler was confirmed as director of ‘Black Panther’, and explained that he grew up reading comics, so the film “is just as personal to me as the last couple of films I was able to make. I feel really fortunate to be able to work on something I’m this passionate about again.” Coogler insisted that he bring collaborators from his previous films to work on ‘Black Panther’ to differentiate the film from others in the MCU that are often “shot, composed, and edited by the same in-house people”. People he brought back to work with him on the film include ‘Fruitvale Station’ cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who has just been nominated for an Oscar for her work on 'Mudbound'), as well as actor Michael B. Jordan, production designer Hannah Beachler and composer Ludwig Göransson, who all worked with Coogler on ‘Fruitvale Station’ and ‘Creed’.

‘Creed’, the seventh instalment of the ‘Rocky’ series and sequel to 2006's ‘Rocky Balboa’, stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson Creed, Apollo Creed's son, with Sylvester Stallone reprising the role of Rocky Balboa and featuring Tessa Thompson (‘Thor: Ragnarok’). The film demonstrated that Coogler could make a well-crafted piece of mainstream filmmaking that showcased the strength of a long-running film series without necessarily breaking the mould … perfect for Marvel’s purposes.

1) Blade II (2002)
Director: Guillermo del Toro

"Ultimately, we couldn’t find the right combination of script and director and, also at the time, we were so far ahead of the game in the thinking, the technology wasn’t there to do what they had already created in the comic book," Snipes said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter of his stalled efforts to make a ‘Black Panther’ film.

"It was a natural progression and a readjustment," Snipes says. "They both ['Black Panther' and 'Blade'] had nobility. They both were fighters. So I thought, hey, we can’t do the King of Wakanda and the Vibranium and the hidden kingdom in Africa, let’s do a black vampire.”

The character Blade was created in 1973 for Marvel Comics by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan as a supporting character in the 1970s comic 'The Tomb of Dracula'. The character was not originally a “daywalker” but a human being immune to being turned into a vampire. Lacking the superhuman speed and strength of his undead quarry, he relied solely on his wits and skill until he was bitten by the character, Morbius, in 1999.

‘Blade’ (1998) followed the disastrous ‘Howard the Duck’ as the second Marvel property to get a wide theatrical release in the United States. Stylishly directed by Stephen Norrington (‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’), it was Marvel's first box office success, broke new ground for African-American superheroes, set the stage for further comic film adaptations, and provided some Afrofuturist footprints for 'Black Panther' to fill.

Guillermo del Toro (‘The Shape of Water’, 'Crimson Peak', ‘Pan's Labyrinth’) was hired to direct the sequel, ‘Blade II’, after Norrington turned down the offer to return. Writer David S. Goyer (‘Man of Steel’) and producer Peter Frankfurt both admired del Toro and believed his dark sensibilities to be ideal for ‘Blade II’. Frankfurt first met del Toro when Frankfurt's design company, Imaginary Forces, did the title sequences for the much-maligned ‘Mimic’. “I admired ‘Mimic’ and got to know Guillermo through that film,” says Frankfurt. “Both David Goyer and I have been fans of his since ‘Cronos’ and were enthusiastic about him coming on board. Guillermo is such a visual director and has a very strong sense of how he wants a movie to look. When you sign on with someone like Guillermo you're not going to tell him what the movie should look like, you're going to let him run with it.” Like Goyer, del Toro had a passion for comic books. “Guillermo was weaned on comic books, as was I,” said Goyer. “I was a huge comic book collector... my brother and I had about twelve thousand comic books that we assembled when we were kids, so I know my background.”

“I wanted the movie to have a feeling of both a comic book and Japanese animation,” said del Toro. “I resurrected those sources and viewed them again. I dissected most of the dailies from the first movie; I literally grabbed about four boxes of tapes and one by one saw every single tape from beginning to end until I perfectly understood where the language of the first film came from. I studied the style of the first one and I think Norrington used a tremendous narrative style. His work is very elegant.”

Ultimately, ‘Blade II’ was a huge improvement over the original film and the greatest advertisement for Oakley sunglasses of all time. The action was more spectacular (Blade fights off dozens of taser-wielding security guards and suplexes the lone survivor through the floor before casually slicing Ron Perlman in half), the script was funnier (“Can you blush?”), the special effects and creature designs were disgustingly del Toro, and the music...

‘Blade II’ still has the best soundtrack of any Marvel film to date. Released through Immortal Records and Virgin Records, it featured collaborations between hip hop artists and electronic artists, like 'I Against I' by Mos Def and Massive Attack, 'Child of the Wild West' by Cypress Hill and Roni Size, and 'PHDream' by The Crystal Method, Tom Morello and Bubba Sparxxx. Each and every track is an absolute banger.

The music holds up, even to this day, making the likes of 'Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1' sound like the cheap, nostalgia-tickling garbage that it surely is.

‘Black Panther’ is released nationally in Australia on the 15th February 2018 via Disney. Click here to read our review now.

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