How 'Black Panther' Subverts the Spy Genre

Black Panther Still 24 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Ryan Coogler doesn’t simply reclaim aspects of Bond in the name of black identity, he also reclaims the Bond girl in a way that becomes more familial.

The threat of a global crisis, high-tech gadgets, a scarred villain with designs on world domination, and a mysterious hero who surrounds himself with beautiful, deadly women.

This could serve as the basis of any number of spy films, but it also provides the foundation for Marvel Studios’ latest feature, Black Panther. Marvel is no stranger to exploring the depths of its superhero films by dipping its toes into other genres, if only just below surface level.

Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has heavily touted the studio’s ability to break the mold of the conventional superhero yarn by borrowing from different genres and styles as a way to stave off superhero fatigue. Some of these ventures have been more successful than others in their search for identity, with the Russo Bros.’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier truly feeling like a film born of '70s paranoid political thrillers, and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films fulfilling a legacy of space operas, one that feels more Captain EO than Star Wars. Other films, like Ant-Man and its description as a heist film, never fully pay their debts to the genres they claim. As a whole though, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has managed, across 17 films, to diversify the comic-book movie and push it out of box-checking origin stories that filled cinemas in the early years of the 21st century.

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the 18th film in the groundbreaking cinematic universe, provided Marvel with a new opportunity for diversification. Regardless of the genre it pulled from, Black Panther was always destined to be a watershed moment, if solely for the black character at its center and the cast of black supporting characters revolving around him. There are inherent differences within Black Panther’s fifty-two-year history that separate him from other Marvel mainstays like Spider-Man, Iron Man or Captain America. Black Panther was always going to be a different kind of superhero movie, though within that storied history there was still enough source material for Coogler to choose a more traditional origin story route, regardless of the character’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War, complete with a learning curve of new powers, a damsel in distress and the ever-reliable secret identity narrative. But Coogler, never a director to simply coast on what’s been done before, goes above and beyond for Marvel Studios’ first film to feature a black lead.

James Bond served as a primary inspiration to Coogler while making Black Panther, and it was Marvel Studios’ initial concept to have a Bond of its own that drew the filmmaker to the project. The stamp of 007 and comic book writer Christopher Priest’s legendary global espionage-centric run on Black Panther is all over the film. From the first act’s journey to an underground casino in Busan, South Korea to T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) serving as his Q-esque tech guru, it’s clear where Coogler’s influences lie. Even Andy Serkis’ secondary villain Klaue, with his prosthetic appendage that doubles as a cannon, harkens back to some of the gimmicky, villainous henchmen of the Bond franchise. In a Hollywood system where the idea of a black Bond is still likely to draw controversy, there is something refreshing about Coogler’s ability to bypass the traditional route to bring us his own version of the world’s coolest superspy, one whose concerns, charms and conquests are inseparable from his race and the way that race is viewed by the rest of the world.

Like Christopher Nolan did with his Bond-inspired Dark Knight films, Black Panther doesn’t simply draw from the world’s most famous spy in its efforts to fold the espionage genre into its identity, it also subverts tropes. The most notable subversion is its depiction of women. Through Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and the royal guard, Dora Milaje, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira), Black Panther avoids the objectification that has been the focal point of so many Bond entries and its like-minded successors. These women aren’t used as props to be replaced in future installments, but are fully realized characters with their own missions and agendas that aren’t easily wrapped up and shuffled off by the time the credits roll.  Black Panther doesn’t simply reclaim aspects of Bond in the name of black identity, it also reclaims the Bond girl in a way that becomes more familial.

While spy films from Bourne to Bond rely on a cool emotional detachment, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole embrace the vulnerability of the characters, including Michael B. Jordan’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, who steps up as one of the MCU’s strongest villains. These are characters who question their country and the debt of patriotism, who remember their parents and ancestors and who aren’t emotionally cut off from the past. The cast that populates the world of Black Panther has storied histories and legacies, separating them from so many of the orphan superspies and megalomaniacs seemingly born of cast iron molds who populate our screens.

It would be a disservice to Coogler’s film to simply pin it as Marvel’s spy movie, because it is also so much more than that. With its world-building, cultural attention and Afrofuturism, Black Panther creates a world that’s just as rich, strange and immersive, if not more so, than Asgard or the planets that populate Marvel’s galactic adventures. The espionage angle grounds the audience in this world, enveloping genre trends while simultaneously broadening the borders of the comic-book movie to introduce us to fantastic new characters and concepts. Black Panther is a high point in Marvel’s continued genre explorations and makes a strong case that when it comes to repurposing cinematic influences, nobody does it better.