Marvel Studios has been on a serious roll. Starting with Iron Man in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown to include feature films, television shows, and online streaming. Along the way, it has re-introduced well known characters like Captain America and Spider-Man while bringing lesser known heroes like Black Widow and Star-Lord to the forefront. On February 16, Black Panther opens nationwide and looks like it will be yet another huge financial success. It also has the potential to have the most social impact of any film in the MCU.

Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966. He was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics and his popularity led to the debuts of Falcon in 1969 and Luke Cage in 1972. A successful Black Panther movie can do the same in its medium. Luke Cage debuted on Netflix in 2016 and Black Lightning recently premiered on The CW, but there have otherwise been few black superheroes in starring roles on television. There have been more movies starring black superheroes, but it is still a small amount. Released in 1998, Blade was a fun film starring Wesley Snipes as the titular character. Blade is half-vampire and is himself a monster, however. The Meteor Man and Blankman were comedies that were panned by critics. Aside from Spawn who essentially served the Devil and Storm who was part of a larger team, there have been no black super heroes in starring roles.

Black Panther can change all of that. Black Panther is simply a hero. Black Panther is a title that was earned by T’Challa once he became king of Wakanda. As king of his native land, T’Challa is also its protector. Black Panther is a hero in the same vein as Superman or Thor. And while he is a part of the Avengers, he has also been portrayed as strong enough to carry his own film. If Black Panther is the blockbuster it is expected to be, this may open the door for more black superheroes like Miles Morales. It is also important to remember that the MCU is an industry leader that sets standards for others. If Marvel succeeds, then DC will not be far behind. John Stewart can be given the chance to succeed where Hal Jordan was unable to.  If and when they succeed, it can lead to original characters. The movie industry is a copy cat business, and Black Panther can usher in positive changes.

Chadwick Boseman’s decision to have Black Panther speak with a Wakandan accent is also a welcome sign. Wakanda is an isolationist country that developed into the most technologically advanced in the world. It did so under its own authority and was never under European rule. Boseman’s choice was a simple one: Black Panther was raised in Wakanda as an independent nation, therefore T’Challa would not speak with the accent of a foreign nation. This is not a man making a political statement, this reinforces that Black Panther is just another hero.

Last year’s Wonder Woman has already shown that audiences are willing to accept a superheroine in a lead role. Black Panther can open even more doors. The Marvel Universe is a diverse one that mirrors reality. From Kamala Khan to Miguel O’Hara to Bobby Drake, Marvel is filled with varied characters that can transition to the big screen into starring roles. If Black Panther is a success, Hollywood may be willing to take more “risks” and move away from the more traditional view as to what a superhero is. As more people watch these movies, there will be a greater acceptance for superheroes no matter their race, gender, or sexual orientation. This in turn will lead to more role models for everyone and in the end, isn’t that what superheroes are supposed to be? Role models that all of us can look up to.

When audiences accept minorities in non-traditional roles, this opens even more roles. The movie industry has shown a willingness to change if audiences want it. Women were once resigned to roles of demure housewives or femme fatales while minorities were cast as neighbors, stereotypes or at best, villains. There are a wider variety of roles now, but there is still resistance. (In all fairness, whitewashing in films has also been decried, but the vitriol does not seem anywhere near as strong. Annihilation, anyone?) If Black Panther succeeds, it can lead to a greater number of strong roles for minorities that are currently not there.  Black Panther can be much more than just another superhero movie.

Black Panther is set to be the first major blockbuster of 2018. It may also be one of the most significant films of the year. It can open doors for future superhero movies and change antiquated perceptions of what a superhero is. It can also lead to more varied role models for our diverse world. For the past decade, the MCU has given audiences entertaining movies. This year it may release its most important one.

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