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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Black Panther]
Disney’s one-two combo of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Panther is a staggering achievement. The Last Jedi is the biggest movie of 2017, while Black Panther is already setting the bar high for 2018. But the films share more than big box-office numbers and a heightened social consciousness; they’re movies actively distancing themselves from franchise preconceptions surrounding them.
The Last Jedi‘s Rian Johnson and Black Panther‘s Ryan Coogler both came up from smaller-scale projects, and have managed to make personal films under two of the biggest blockbuster banners around. So it’s interesting to consider that both of their films end on essentially the same beat (not counting Marvel’s customary post-credits scenes): A child witnesses something incredible, inspiration for a future that otherwise might seem impossible.
Black Panther’s finale is particularly moving as it uses T’Challa’s ship to mesmerize and engage Oakland kids, specifically a wonderstruck child played by Moonlight’s Alex Hibbert. He asks if the ship belongs to the Wakandan king, pauses, then asks who he is. We get to watch a kid create a hero for himself — something doubly touching as we know that’s also true for plenty of kids of color in the audience getting to see a hero who looks like them on the big screen.
Much in the same way, The Last Jedi places its hope in a young Force-wielding, broom-sweeping slave played by first-timer Temirlan Blaev. He may be verbally abused and worn down, but he has hope after he sees starships blast into hyperspace. He’s got the insignia of the Resistance (given to him by Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose) and he’s got the Force (which he uses to summon a broom). We get the sense the kid has a future that will transcend his current circumstances. It’s easy to imagine that fighting the machine will come naturally to him now that he’s heard the whispers of resistance, found the role models and witnessed the infinite promises of the stars.
These two scenes cap films that spend their runtimes raising questions about legacy. Black Panther is a story about refining identities (personal, cultural and national) and separating past from future. It lacks the tie-ins, foreshadowed villains and lame MacGuffins populating the more interconnected Marvel films. It opts instead to create a world of its own. The Last Jedi dismisses reverence for what came before in both its plot and its themes as the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) attempts to violently eradicate the past, while the film’s heroes attempt to learn from it and move on.
That this message is shared across both films makes sense from storytelling and business perspectives. Both franchises hope to live long lives, and a new generation of viewers needs to be wooed. Marvel is already up to three films a year — and has at least a decade of stories planned, while Lucasfilm aims to release one movie a year indefinitely.
When you end your film with the geeky equivalent of a kid catching “Mean” Joe Greene’s jersey, it explicitly tells the younger segment of the audience that, yes, they are right to let their imaginations run wild. It tells them that, yes, if circumstances were different (but not that different), it could have been them up on screen meeting Black Panther or doing chores with the mysterious power of the Jedi.
As Johnson explained about Empire: “To me, it was really important to have that final scene, because it turns what Luke did from an act that saves 20 people into an act that inspires the galaxy.”
Coogler gave an interview back in 2007 in which he said that he wanted to make movies in Oakland (his birthplace and home for many years). He wanted to make movies “kids can see,” that will inspire them to say, “I can do that.” A little more than a decade later and Coogler’s done just that.
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