Marvel's Path Forward After 'Black Panther' Is Becoming Clear

Ryan Coogler's film suggests that following 'Infinity War,' the cinematic universe will still have plenty of creative juice left — by becoming less connected.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Black Panther]

The final words on screen in Black Panther are no surprise to anyone with any familiarity with the status of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “Black Panther will return in Avengers: Infinity War.” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), now the king of the fictional African country Wakanda, was introduced within the MCU in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. He, in his Black Panther disguise, joined many of the Avengers there in a big battle sequence. So it’s no real shock that he’ll be back in the upcoming Infinity War. What is pleasantly surprising about Black Panther is how little connection it tries to make between the story of T’Challa and Marvel’s other marquee superheroes.

Though T’Challa is no stranger to either comic-book die-hards or fans of the MCU, Black Panther focuses squarely on the story of his initial days as the new King of Wakanda, after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War. In keeping with the conflict that T’Challa has regarding whether the rest of the world should know about Wakanda’s vast technological prowess, personified by his battle with the American ex-soldier Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), Black Panther is wholly contained, almost entirely separate of the MCU. Two of the supporting characters — CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) — have appeared in other Marvel movies, but even their appearance doesn’t fully drag T’Challa into the MCU or the upcoming battle with the alien Thanos.

This, in effect, is one of the reasons why Black Panther works so well. It would not be wholly correct to suggest that co-writer and director Ryan Coogler has been given full autonomy in telling the story of T’Challa. If there is a misstep in the film, it’s that the handful of fight sequences largely seem chopped up in the editing room, even though Coogler’s Creed featured boxing sequences that were both coherent and thrilling to watch. But Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole feel less hamstrung by connecting T’Challa to Iron Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange or the myriad other heroes we know will be meeting up to fend off Thanos in Infinity War.

The end of Civil War portended at least one way in which T’Challa and the Wakandans would tie into the MCU, as Steve Rogers’ old war buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) was secretly given asylum in the country and placed into cryogenic sleep in hopes of eventually warding off the brainwashing that turned him into the Winter Soldier. In the second of two post-credit scenes in Black Panther, we see Barnes — dubbed “White Wolf” by Wakandan children — awaken and be greeted by T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), suggesting that he has much to learn. Here, we have the seeds for how Wakanda will likely come into play in Infinity War, but it’s to the film’s benefit that Black Panther is about the Black Panther as opposed to the MCU at large. The commentary surrounding the film’s all-too-necessary representation of people of color — until Stan shows up at the end, Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the film with major speaking roles — emphasizes the film’s value. So too does the willingness of Marvel honchos to allow Black Panther to be its own thing, as opposed to feeling like another piece in the MCU puzzle. A great deal of this film doesn’t feel beholden to the MCU, which may be its best asset.

In the last couple of years, the running theme with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that their best films are fresh and singular; they don’t exist as a lead-up to the next big thing. The two Guardians of the Galaxy films are among the loosest and most charming Marvel movies, in no small part because the ragtag heroes (for now) have no bond to the Avengers. Last fall’s Thor: Ragnarok was a welcome blast of humor and action, a radical and necessary turn away from the melodramatics of the previous two Thor movies. Now we have Black Panther, an intense, clever and vibrant entry that reflects its hero’s winning personality. These movies suggest that after Infinity War is over, the MCU can thrive without feeling like it has to mash up its heroes into a greater battle.

Black Panther represents the latest creative step in the right direction for Marvel Studios, though its depiction of a black hero as the lead should have occurred years ago. With less than three months before the arrival of Avengers: Infinity War, however, this movie could have turned into a large-scale preview of that big team-up. Fortunately, Black Panther largely avoids the vagaries of the MCU in favor of depicting what may be one of Marvel’s most inspirational superhumans to date in one of the most satisfying, self-contained installments yet.