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'Black Panther' Could Change Marvel for the Better—or Not

It’s been difficult to watch the excitement surrounding the release of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther without becoming aware of how unlike earlier Marvel Studios movies it is. From the predominantly person-of-color cast, to the soundtrack overseen by Kendrick Lamar (remember when Soundgarden made their comeback as the music for The Avengers? That’s how hip Marvel movies used to be), it’s a movie that challenges the idea of what audiences can expect from a Marvel Studios production as much as it embraces the brand.

Moreover, it’s a movie that does so coming on the heels of Thor: Ragnarok, which did a gentler version of the same thing, functioning both as a traditional Marvel movie and a parody of the brand with an inclusivity and self-awareness that the year’s earlier Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 didn’t possess; that movie had humor, yes, but also a sentimentality and sincerity that placed it firmly in the traditional Marvel mold. Based on this evidence—and the fact that Black Panther is followed on Marvel’s release schedule by Avengers: Infinity War, which looks to be arguably the most traditionally Marvel of all Marvel movies—it’s clear that Marvel Studios is approaching a point in its existence where it needs to decide what kind of movies it should be making in the future, and whether to stick with formula or evolve beyond that.

The only question is … which choice will it make? Certainly, the success of Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok—not only in terms of box office, but also critically—would suggest that there’s both a willingness to break with convention from audiences, and a hunger for it. (At time of writing, Black Panther has a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Thor: Ragnarok hitting 92 percent; compare that to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s 83 percent, and there’s a notable gap.)
That eagerness for the new might speak to the ever-present threat of “superhero fatigue,” the notion that audiences are just one bad movie away from realizing that they’re sick of seeing the same movies over and over again—which would also act as an argument for embracing the unknown and trying to break out of the old routine. Certainly, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has hinted as much, saying earlier this year that the studio plans to change.

“I say, if they’re all different, if they’re all special, nobody will get tired of these things before we at Marvel Studios will, since we live and breathe these things 24 hours a day,” Feige said, going on to suggest that the evolution in recent movies is an attempt to avoid such burnout. “You make films like Thor: Ragnarok, like [Spider-Man: Homecoming], like Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly like Panther and the upcoming Infinity War, to keep it interesting and change it up.”

Indeed, Avengers: Infinity War will be a different type of movie from Black Panther, just as Panther is different from Guardians of the Galaxy. But Infinity is definitely a prime example of old-school Marvel in terms of formula—by teaming all of the heroes up in one movie, it’s essentially an Avengers remake—and, especially, in terms of casting.

This is, after all, the Marvel movie that literally features three white men called Chris in lead roles, in some weird fulfillment of all the jokes ever made at the studio’s expense. That’s genuinely just one fewer than all the lead women in the cast, combined. (No, really; there's Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan, although other women appear in the movie, obviously. In its defense, the only Chad in the cast is T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman.) It is, in many ways, as much a symbol of everything detractors complain about with Marvel as Black Panther is the symbol of an alternative.

That Infinity War arrives directly after Panther allows it to act as a potential signpost for Marvel, when it comes to weighing up the future direction. Infinity War will, of course, be a hit—it’s the culmination of the studio’s 10 years to date, so how could it not succeed? But the reaction to the movie in terms of word of mouth after its debut, and response from critics, might end up being the final decider as to whether the studio continues to experiment in an attempt to expand the definition of what a superhero movie can be, or decides to color inside the lines because, really, who wants to ruin something as successful as Marvel has been for the last decade by trying too many new things?

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