Black Panther feels as much like a moment as it does a movie. There has been something transformative about the response to what, in another time and place, might have just ended up as *another* Marvel movie. It’s yet again proof that Marvel are expanding their reach, upping their game, and doubling their odds.
Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adapting the successful if not widely known outside comic-book circles story of King T’Challa of Wakanda, is the second picture in a row from the comics studio, after Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, to feel like the true work of an auteur filmmaker. This has been a balance Kevin Feige’s game-changing franchise has previously struggled with since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man changed the course of blockbuster cinema in 2008; you only have to point to the wreckage of films such as The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World as good examples of how it took Marvel a while to truly embrace a filmmaker’s singular vision alongside the beats and overarching universal frameworks Marvel have spent a decade building toward, which will reach a conclusion with Avengers: Infinity War this year and its untitled 2019 sequel.
Could it be that the reason both Thor: Ragnarok and now Black Panther are such strong entities within the Marvel family is precisely because they didn’t have to particularly fit that framework? That’s a strong possibility. All Waititi had to do was position Thor in a space whereby he could be slotted back into Infinity War – beyond that he had carte blanche to re-imagine the world of Asgard as a neon, Guardians of the Galaxy-esque, 1980’s retro-futuristic blend of mythology and Antipodean eccentricity, and for the most part it worked beautifully. Coogler has perhaps even greater freedom with Black Panther, allowed as he is to truly develop the internal mythology and world of Wakanda around what isn’t a traditional origin story for T’Challa, given his previous introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but something deeper: a liberal-minded tale of colonial rejection, imperialist globalisation, and the haunting embers of black persecution.
There’s an almost laugh out loud moment in War For the Planet of the Apes in which several of our simian heroes, traversing a tunnel underneath a massive, fortified Army mountain base, find scrawled graffiti on the wall which reads ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’. The laughter doesn’t just come from the bad pun but how, frankly, that could have been an alternate title in a much sillier world.
War For the Planet of the Apes is about both the death of humanity but also the death of the American Dream. This is exemplified through the character of The Colonel, played with quiet steel masking hardened swagger by Woody Harrelson, who is a not so veiled homage to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; he’s bald, he’s a stone cold military man, he has an almost hypnotic power of his troops and he’s very much gone off the reservation. The Colonel captures the madness of war, and the fear behind knowing you’ve essentially lost it.
After the critical and commercial success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves was swiftly recruited by 20th Century Fox alongside returning writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to continue and in many senses conclude the Apes saga began in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. While the series could continue beyond War, by the end you honestly wonder if it should. Sure, this could very easily lead into the original Planet of the Apes remade, but what would be the point? What story is left to tell? This feels like the definitive exploration of man vs ape as a complete trilogy.
If Rise of the Planet of the Apes was about the hubris of man bringing on its own self-destruction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes switches the gears to focus much more heavily on ape society, and how unwitting leader of their new civilisation Caesar can rule and govern a world alongside what’s left of humanity.
Following the critical and commercial success of Rise in 2011, it was expected that Rupert Wyatt would continue and develop the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rising planet of the apes into the almost inevitable sequel. The plan between he and producer Rick Jaffa was to build back toward the story of the 1968 original Charlton Heston movie, in which his lone surviving astronaut ultimately finds himself on a future, post-apocalyptic Earth which apekind have inherited; indeed in Rise we see the launch of the Icarus, the very same space mission to Mars, more than suggesting we were heading back to a probable remake of Planet of the Apes – ignoring Tim Burton’s poor 2001 attempt.
Suddenly, Wyatt left the project late in 2012 when 20th Century Fox’s planned release date of May 2014 was deemed far too close to write, produce and direct what was already announced as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially considering the sheer amount of CGI work needed to put Caesar and his world on screen. Matt Reeves, still riding the success of sort-of indie, sort-of found footage, sort-of blockbuster Cloverfield in 2008 and at that point developing a Twilight Zone feature remake, was drafted in as his replacement. Reeves very much took the ideas Wyatt laid down in Rise and evolved them in a way one suspects differently from how Wyatt himself would have gone.