How the MCU Was Made: ‘Black Panther’ and the Creation of Marvel’s First Oscar Contender

     August 28, 2019

“How the MCU Was Made” is a series of deep-dive articles that delve into the ins and outs of the development history, production, and release of all the Marvel Studios movies.

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began in 2008 with Iron Man, the folks at Marvel Studios probably were not thinking about the Academy Awards. Sure, it would be nice to be recognized, but clearly the films that were in the works at the time—Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America—were a bit more less “serious” in nature than Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. And if even The Dark Knight couldn’t land a Best Picture nomination, surely a nod for a movie about a Norse god superhero was a long shot.

But as the MCU matured and went on to become the most popular and consistent film franchise around, Marvel Studios—under the direction of president Kevin Feige—got bolder and more ambitious with its storytelling, and suddenly Oscar recognition didn’t seem like a complete pipe dream. Indeed, despite many naysayers, 2018’s Black Panther not only became the first Marvel movie to win an Oscar and the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture, it was also one of the most successful, best, and most thematically ambitious movies Marvel Studios had ever released. This is the story of how Marvel found its greatest success by embracing one filmmaker’s complete creative freedom.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Development on a Black Panther movie predates the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as an adaptation of the Marvel Comics property was previously in the works throughout the 1990s with Wesley Snipes attached to the title role. Snipes remained a possibility when Marvel Studios forged ahead with its own adaptations, but his involvement become a non-starter when the actor went to prison for failing to file a tax return.

While the Phase 1 films were the priority for Marvel Studios in the studio’s early development, Black Panther was pondered as a potential film quite early on. In 2007, John Singleton surfaced as a possibility to direct, and in January 2011 the film entered official development with its first writer, documentary filmmaker Mark Bailey (Pandemic). Around this time, Nate Moore—the head of Marvel’s now-defunct writers program which churned out scripts for potential projects—boarded Black Panther as lead creative producer.

Marvel considered introducing Wakanda—the secretive home nation of Black Panther—as early as Iron Man 2, and again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but decided to hold off until they had a more firm idea of what the world of Wakanda was going to look like. Things finally progressed to a point where Marvel was ready to take the leap when Captain America: Civil War rolled around, as the team decided they would use that film to introduce the character of T’Challa and the idea of Wakanda.

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Image via Marvel Studios

In October 2014, as pre-production on Civil War was underway, Feige announced that Chadwick Boseman would be playing the role of Black Panther in a standalone film to be released in November 2017. Boseman was offered the role outright, and as preparations got underway for his introduction in Civil War, Marvel began meeting with directors and writers.

In May 2015, news broke that Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay was meeting with Marvel about potentially directing Black Panther or Captain Marvel. She nearly agreed to tackle Black Panther, seeing the superhero film as a grand opportunity:

“For me, 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, in a certain way: excitement, action, fun, all those things, and yet still be focused on a black man as a hero — that would be pretty revolutionary,” she continued. “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. That’s how the conversations continued, because that’s what I was interested in. But everyone’s interested in different things.”

Ultimately, however, in talking with Marvel, DuVernay came to the conclusion that there would be too much compromise involved to commit three years of her life and career to the film, and she declined the gig in July 2015:

“What my name is on means something to me — these are my children,” she said of her body of work. “This is my art. This is what will live on after I’m gone. So it’s important to me that that 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.”

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Image via Marvel Studios

DuVernay further explained that she and Marvel disagreed on the direction the story should take:

“I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do. I loved that they reached out to me.”

It’s worth noting, as I mentioned in How the MCU Was Made: Thor: Ragnarok, that at the time that DuVernay was courted for Black Panther, the sometimes troubling Marvel Creative Committee was still in effect and Feige was still reporting to Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter. Which means the creative freedom of the filmmaker involved would be limited.

So it may or may not be a coincidence that Feige successfully changed things up in August 2015, shortly after DuVernay’s exit, reorganizing the way Marvel movies are made by reporting directly to Disney studio head Alan Horn instead of Perlmutter and dissolving the Marvel Creative Committee altogether.

By October 2015, F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) and Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) were under consideration to direct, and that December—after the successful release of Creed—Coogler signed on to co-write and direct Black Panther. At the same time, Joe Robert Cole, who was part of the Marvel writers program and scripted movies for War Machine and Inhumans that never got made, signed on to co-write Black Panther with Coogler.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Coogler was hotly sought after by Marvel, and he got the studio to agree to letting him bring his own collaborators with him to Black Panther. Traditionally at Marvel Studios, movies were made with a lot of the same production designers, costume designers, composers, and cinematographers. This is one of the reasons the MCU films can feel a little same-y in their aesthetic. But with Black Panther, Coogler was given the freedom to bring onboard cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station), production designer Hannah Beachler (Creed), costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Malcolm X), and composer Ludwig Goransson (Creed). All of these individuals were Marvel newbies, and all ended up landing Oscar nominations for their work with Beachler, Carter, and Goransson actually winning. Again, it’s not hard to draw a straight line between Feige’s restructuring at Marvel to the studio’s willingness to really shake up the way Marvel movies are made with Black Panther, given the timeline here.

In writing the screenplay, Coogler and Cole drew inspiration from the comic book runs of Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Coogler aimed to make the film “deeply personal.” Coogler even sought screenplay advice from Donald Glover and Stephen Glover, who gave notes on the film.

Before he agreed to direct Black Panther, Coogler made clear that he wanted to explore important themes in the film:

“The biggest thing for me was the themes of the story – letting them know where my head was at and making sure they would get on board. I was very honest about the idea I wanted to explore in this film, which is what it means to be African. That was one of the first things I talked about. And they were completely interested.”

Coogler took a research trip to Africa to prepare for the film, which Feige said was just as important and vital to informing Black Panther as any of the comic books. It directly led to the expansions of the idea of exploring what it means to be African vs. what it means to be African-American in the characters of T’Challa and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan):

He says he started thinking about “this concept of us as a people” – meaning African-Americans – “being marooned in this place that we’re not from. When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them the Bay Area and there’s a sense of pride there. But the truth is, we’re really from that place. The place that everybody’s from.”

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Image via Marvel Studios

Since he was telling a story so intrinsically tied to the black experience, Coogler made it a point to hire an almost entirely black ensemble in front of the camera, but also behind the camera. Co-star Daniel Kaluuya found the behind-the-scenes representation most striking:

“It’s a work environment I’ve never really had in this industry before. The majority of the crew was black – or [certainly] a lot more than usual. For me, it was behind the camera that was the most revolutionary. Like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this. This is a Marvel film, and we’re doing this.’”

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