The Ascent of 'Black Panther' Director Ryan Coogler

After 'Fruitvale' and 'Creed,' his first Marvel movie marks the full-throated arrival of a filmmaker whose talents are being applied to the largest canvas possible.
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From left: Michael B. Jordan in 'Creed,' Ryan Coogler on the set of 'Black Panther and Lupita Nyong'o in 'Black Panther

There was once a time when a low-budget independent production, the kind that makes waves at Sundance, wouldn’t immediately lead its director to the world of big-budget blockbusters. Within the last decade, however, a fair number of helmers of some massively budgeted genre fare were only a couple years removed from bare-bones affairs. There’s Jon Watts, who jumped from the $5 million Cop Car to Spider-Man: Homecoming; Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who went from The Kings of Summer to Kong: Skull Island; and Colin Trevorrow, who transitioned from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. This weekend marks the peak of a slightly longer ascent for Ryan Coogler, director of Marvel’s Black Panther.

Five years ago, Coogler was the director of festival favorite Fruitvale Station, the harrowing real-life story of Oscar Grant III (played by Michael B. Jordan), depicted on the last day of his life before being shot and killed by aggressive Bay Area police officers outside a subway station. The success of Fruitvale Station, which won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at Sundance, led both Coogler and Jordan to collaborate for the second of three times as director and star of the remarkably entertaining Creed in 2015. The film, a new entry in the long-running Rocky franchise, tells the story of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (Jordan), who ends up being trained by the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) himself before a heavyweight fight in the United Kingdom. That well-received film earned $173.5 million on a $35 budget — and then led Coogler to the much bigger world of Marvel.

Black Panther, both because it’s a comic-book movie and because it’s Marvel Studios’ long-overdue first entry in its cinematic universe with a black man at the forefront, has received a level of attention not paid even to the anticipated Creed. Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole have written a film more than worthy of that attention, an intelligent and brooding drama that’s as focused on how the sins of one leader can reverberate through generations, as it is about a superpowered man who dons a panther-like super-suit to protect the people of his country. When we meet T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), he’s about to be crowned King of Wakanda after the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. Though he’s ready to sit on the throne, he is soon challenged by Erik Stevens, AKA Killmonger (the always-excellent Jordan), an American with a surprising connection to Wakanda who believes that the country should reverse its isolationist policies and push back against those who oppress with an iron fist.

Black Panther is not without its action sequences, such as an extended fight in a South Korean casino. However, perhaps because so many big-budget blockbusters have their action setpieces pre-visualized early in production, these battles feel less visceral than anything Coogler pulled off in Creed. What does make Black Panther stand out is its fully formed drama, in large part because Killmonger — nasty-sounding nickname aside— feels like a truly realized character, not just a mustache-twirling villain. Crafting a battle where both sides are more united than split apart allows more complexity here than might be expected from Marvel. (Killmonger’s backstory, and his desire to let the rest of the world know of Wakanda’s vast power and technology, aches with the same kind of thorny emotion that Jordan brought to his leading roles in Coogler’s other films.) But that complexity is what Coogler brings to the project, the singular personality that makes the film stand out.

Only so much personality can exist in the latest entry in a massively successful series partially designed to sell toys and other merchandise, even if it pays off on creative promises of years past. But so much of Black Panther, a surprising amount, feels distinctive and personal. The film is bookended with scenes set in Oakland— though it’s otherwise set outside of the States — in which the lives of black children are incalculably impacted for years to come. Though there is much strife and internal debate (verbal and physical) on display in Black Panther, the last images strike a necessary and welcome tone of hope. It’s here where Coogler’s attitude shines through the stereotypes of the superhero movie.

Black Panther marks the full-throated arrival of a filmmaker whose talents can be applied to the largest canvas possible. Each of Ryan Coogler’s three features has highlighted his emotional and visceral directorial capabilities. Some directors who make the leap from indie festival favorite to big-budget blockbusters aren’t able to imbue the bigger films with the personality that they originally displayed. Now that he’s made a slightly longer leap from micro-budget to massive budget with Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s personality hasn’t vanished; it’s only gotten stronger.