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Just How Hard is a Black Panther Film, Anyway?

A lot of news broke at San Diego Comic-Con, particularly courtesy of Marvel and Marvel Studios. They’ve been busy, and of course fans wanted to know what else was coming down the line. One of the questions that Marvel Studios reps answered was about a prospective Black Panther film. They discussed the difficulty in getting it right and getting audiences to buy into the concept of Wakanda. A short while later, Marvel announced that their big 2014 blockbuster is going to be Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie featuring a talking raccoon and a tree from outer space. That’s funny, disappointing, and unsurprising all at once. Let me tell you why:I was a late convert to the church of the Black Panther. As a kid, I thought he was corny. From my POV, he wore tube socks, didn’t have any powers, and didn’t even seem to have anything to do with the real Black Panthers. He was a loser. It was a snap judgment, based on the comics I had at hand, but I believed it and could defend it.

Years passed. I grew up. I read more. I read about black history. I read about the Black Panthers. I read about Black Panther. I saw how Jack Kirby treated the character as if he were the heir to the great adventure novels and piled the sci-fi and fantasy elements high. I saw how Don McGregor and Billy Graham turned a made-up African nation into a thriving and diverse locale, all while producing work that was decades ahead of its time. I saw how Christopher Priest, Mark Texeira, and others proved that the Panther could work in a book that had just as much focus on sociopolitical drama as it did on comedy. I saw how Reggie Hudlin, John Romita Jr, and Scot Eaton explored the character from a black American point of view and recreated him from the ground up, but still remained true.

I got it.

I’m not reading Marvel’s comics these days, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the character, all he represents, and all he could be. I haven’t always liked the changes — his little sister becoming the Panther was an awesome idea with lax execution, while the Man Without Fear era is a boring idea with great art — but I liked seeing how they explore the character and recreate him for new generations of readers.

San Diego Comic-Con 2012 just passed, and Marvel discussed their upcoming slate of movies. In addition to Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s producing an Ant-Man movie and a Guardians of the Galaxy film. Marvel co-president Louis D’Esposito spoke with MTV News before the announcements, and was evasive about both projects for the standard hype interview reasons. But as a result of his evasiveness, however, he said something that was both surprising and familiar at the same time:

On “Guardians,” he said: “That would be Marvel in space. That’s a great concept and a great idea, and potentially one of our films in the future.”

As for “Black Panther,” he noted that T’Challa “has a lot of the same characteristics of a Captain America: great character, good values.” But the movie might be difficult to pull off, he said, because of having to create Wakanda from the ground up. “It’s always easier basing it here. For instance, ‘Iron Man 3′ is rooted right here in Los Angeles and New York. When you bring in other worlds, you’re always faced with those difficulties.”

One of the weirdest things about being a black comics fan, other than basically being invisible a lot of the time, is that you’re more likely to find a comic starring an alien or animal than you are a black man, and good luck finding a comic starring a black woman! Black characters are seen as harder to write, too. Sometimes writers, big name A-list writers, will explain that they just don’t feel comfortable writing black characters, because what if they mess up or the characters are inauthentic or they are accidentally racist?

I hear the taint of that fear in D’Esposito’s statements. What other reason could there be for a movie about a talking raccoon in outer space being a great idea while a movie about a black superhero being more difficult? He has a point that it’s always easier to base movies in LA or New York, because decades of movies have taught us about those places.

What’s so hard about a fictional African nation that looks like anything you want it to look like? Wakanda has been varyingly composed of ultra-high tech cities, dense jungles, huts, and isolated houses on plains. It looks like Blade Runner, Total Recall, the Dust Bowl, New York City, or Hotel Rwanda, depending on what book you’re reading and what part of the country you’re looking at. Movie Wakanda could be anything. If moviegoers can buy Middle Earth, Asgard, Fargo, Texas, Alderaan, and Hogwarts, I don’t think Wakanda would be too hard. In fact, compared with a talking raccoon, Wakanda is easy.

D’Esposito’s comments aren’t offensive, exactly, but they are… frustrating? Let’s go with frustrating. It’s the same song and dance we’ve heard before. Marvel has given Black Panther more than his fair share of chances, and I’m deeply appreciative of that. But where is everyone else? Falcon, Luke Cage, and Storm are the highest profile black characters at Marvel, last I checked. In the past few years, Luke Cage has gotten a three-issue mini and an alternate universe miniseries. Storm starred in a flashback miniseries during the run-up to her marriage to Black Panther, and one about her childhood as a thief. There have been a few stray one-shots, generally in concert with another hero, and guest appearances, but by and large, the others have not had anything resembling starring roles.

Ages ago, Marvel Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort responded to a reader question about international leads like so:

I don’t know that it’s any one thing, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it’s all part of the same phenomenon that makes it more difficult to sell series with female leads, or African-American leads, or leads of any other particular cultural bent. Because we’re an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males. So while within that demographic you’ll find people who are interested in a wide assortment of characters of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, whenever your leads are white American males, you’ve got a better chance of reaching more people overall. That’s something that continues to change as the audience for what we do gets larger and more diverse-but even within that diversity, it’s probably going to be easier to make a success of a book with a female or African-American lead before it is a British or Canadian-centric character.

He’s right, of course, and it’s nice to see real talk about things like this. Marvel’s target audience is white males of a certain age, and everything else is secondary. They’ve spent decades servicing that audience, and that audience has come to expect a certain thing. It isn’t offensive or racism so much as simple business. “Who do we want to sell to? How can we best service them?” I wish it were otherwise, but it is what it is. They need to sell comics. I think they could sell more comics by opening their focus some, but I’m not in charge of figuring out how to do that without alienating their core audience. If wishes were fishes, the sea would be full.

I’m not in a positon to know why D’Esposito said what he did how he did. If I had to guess, though, it would be because there isn’t a Panther movie coming any time soon. D’Esposito is using very familiar language as he dodges the issue. He’s emphasizing that they want to get it right, if they do it, and that they haven’t gotten it right yet. This is what anyone in his position would say, because it both keeps the hope alive and emphasizes that they care.

The problem is the unfortunate juxtaposition of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie being describe as a great concept and Marvel’s 2014 movie and a Black Panther movie being described as “a little more difficult.” It looks silly and horrible. It would have been better to talk about finding a good script, or how strong the character is, than to talk about how hard the movie would be to make, especially considering the source material.

But instead, he said what he said, and here we are. His words are frustrating because they’re so familiar. They’re similar to what’s often been used to respond to the lack of black characters in comics when fans ask what’s up. It feels like empty marketing, a “stick around and we’ll hook you up!” instead of straight talk.

The last time the idea of a Panther movie got buzz, it was when Marvel announced that they’d hired a screenwriter early last year. That sounds like good news, but over the past few years, they’ve also announced writers for movies featuring Iron Fist, the Runaways, Fantastic Four (technically Fox), Daredevil (Fox again!), and Dr Strange. They’ve also hinted heavily at Black Widow, Luke Cage, and SHIELD getting their own movies, in addition to a TV shows featuring Cloak & Dagger, Mockingbird, and Jessica Jones. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of any of these movies past those initial announcements, but we have seen cartoons and movies featuring the Avengers and Spider-Man crop up, get canceled, and rebooted in the years since. Considering the other projects that have been announced and disappeared, D’Esposito’s comments feel more like a “stay tuned, true believer!” than any real confirmation of anything except the lack of a Black Panther movie.

The funniest part, and by that I mean funny “awww” and not funny “ha ha,” is that Marvel’s movies would not be what they are now without a black man: Wesley Snipes as Blade. They were a stepping stone, proof that you could make successful movies starring comic characters. And in the years since, we’ve gotten movies starring Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra, Hulk, a second Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Captain America, a second Hulk, another Punisher, the X-Men, Man-Thing, another set of X-Men, and the Avengers. Soon, we’ll have Ant-Man, sequels to a couple more movies, and a movie featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy. The biggest bone thrown to black fans was an animated adaptation of Reginald Hudlin & John Romita Jr’s run on Black Panther, which was announced in 2008, eventually aired on BET in late 2011 after being aired on Australian TV in early 2010, and was eventually shoveled onto Netflix.

C’mon.

Sometimes, being black and being a fan of comics means that you have to like them in spite of yourself.

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