One key element for every superhero: the suit — and new-to-screen Marvel character Black Panther is no exception. Last week, we shared a behind-the-seams look at the spectacular costumes of BLACK PANTHER from our 2017 on-set visit. Fans got a peek of the sleek suit in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, but trust us when we say you ain’t seen nothing yet. From its set design to African-cultural aspects to family-focused storyline, Marvel hasn’t made a movie quite like this. The stars share more about what makes BLACK PANTHER so special.
It’s April 17, 2017, a characteristically warm and humid afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, on the set of BLACK PANTHER, but the mood on a well-lit soundstage at Pinewood Studios is cool and loose. If there’s pressure on 31-year-old director Ryan Coogler or his cast members over this film — the latest entry in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe and among the most expensive films ever directed by an African-American — it’s not evident on the surface.
The production’s code name, typically used with outside vendors for security and assigned to any location shooting in order to try to tamp down fans hanging around and taking photos, is “Motherland” — an appropriately familial moniker and one rich in symbolism, too. Several crew members wear T-shirts with a list of various “Coogler-isms,” or frequent sayings of the director, on the back, spelled out in the shape of the continent of Africa. Letitia Wright jokes around with some of her co-stars while six to eight blanket-wearing “shepherd soldiers,” background extras, mill about backstage. After consulting quickly with his cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, over a framing choice and some other technical details, Coogler steps out of the shadows of “video village.” Wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and a Golden State Warriors baseball cap, he moves in confidently to confer with four of his actors — Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Martin Freeman.
The group is filming a dialogue scene, set in an underground lab that is in turn part of a larger, secret vibranium mine, in which they’re piecing together the identity of Erik Killmonger Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), Black Panther’s primary antagonist. Freeman stays busy running pneumonic warmup vocal exercises prior to shooting. When Coogler calls action, he launches into a lengthy monologue, pointing at a monitor for emphasis.
“That’s Eric Stevens,” says Freeman, who co-stars as Everett K. Ross, a CIA agent and confidant of Boseman’s superhero king, T’Challa. “He graduated Annapolis at age 19, MIT for grad school, and then straight into the Navy SEALS. He headed to Afghanistan, where he racked up kills like a videogame — they called him Killmonger. He joined JSOC’s ghost unit. These guys are serious — they’ll drop off the grid so they can commit assassinations and take down governments. He came onto my radar when he was working with (Ulysses) Klaue.”
“He has a war dog tattoo, but we have no record of him,” offers Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s science-minded sister, who also designs weapons and other special technology for the fictional African country of Wakanda. Boseman looks on, concerned, and there’s a brief beat before Nyong’o speaks up as Nakia, an ex-girlfriend of T’Challa and a tough, respected fighter of her own. “He’s en route to Wakanda,” Nyong’o says, “to see both you and the tribal elders.”
Marvel Studios CEO Kevin Feige and everyone else involved with BLACK PANTHER hope audiences make that trip to Wakanda as well when the film hits theatres February 16, 2018. The movie represents both Marvel’s riskiest and potentially most exciting project since at least the original GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY — and perhaps ever. While populated with respected actors under the watchful eye of a hot young director coming off a pair of films both critically respected and commercially successful (FRUITVALE STATION and CREED), Black Panther is a less well-known comic book property/character than Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man or Captain America.
If fan reaction to the film’s trailer debut is any indicator, however, BLACK PANTHER looks to be a huge hit. The footage (of which we saw a special rough cut, weeks before anyone else) made internet commenters across the globe collectively lose their minds — gushing about everything from the stylish costumes and weaponry to Coogler’s smoothly efficient action style, to Boseman’s brooding sex appeal and the novelty of the Dora Milaje — the all-female special forces of Wakanda who protect the country’s king.
The movie, of course, stars Boseman as T’Challa, a character first introduced in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Already reticent about inheriting the throne following the death of his father, and also unsure of his homeland’s place in an increasingly fractious world, T’Challa is thrust into the world of the Avengers since Wakanda serves as Earth’s only source of vibranium — the material from which Captain America’s shield is made.
“The original conversation I had with Ryan, we just talked about different movies that we liked in general, not this movie,” says Boseman, relaxing in a large warehouse adjacent to the main set just prior to tackling a day’s work. “Some of the films were the same, like THE GODFATHER. I can’t think of all the different ones. But we talked about what films we loved and what goes into making good films. And as far as this movie goes, we talked a little bit about the different iterations of the character of Black Panther — the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee original version, the new Ta-Nehisi Coates version, Reginald Hudlin’s version, Christopher Priest’s version. And while I can’t tell you everything that ended up in the movie, I would say that there are pieces of each one that are in our film. I mean, it was a fun conversation.”
Also exciting to Boseman was Black Panther’s planned stylistic adventurousness. “Really, you can pull from African culture all across the globe, because Wakanda is not a real place, you know?” he says. “But Wakanda is supposed to be advanced, and it’s supposed to be older than the other countries there (on the continent). So you can actually say, ‘If this is from Zimbabwe or from Ghana or from South Africa, it actually came from Wakanda.’ So it opens it up creatively and allows the movie to have a (visual) palette that incorporates all of Africa.”
“I don’t think there’s anything typical about this movie,” agrees Nyong’o later, in a separate conversation on set. “It’s been really intense and very consuming. I mean, we have these incredible sets, each one of which is nothing like I imagined it would be. The art department on this film has really gone above and beyond to bring Wakanda to life. And because it’s a new world within the Marvel Universe, everything is being established for the first time in this film. So it’s really exciting, and it doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen in the Marvel Universe.”
Boseman was already signed onto the project when Coogler came aboard, but the classically trained, Oscar®-winning Nyong’o — who for her role would endure two months of physical training focused on a lot of Asian-influenced martial arts, including jujitsu and Thai boxing — was won over by a combination of Coogler’s vision and the opportunity to finally get physical in a movie.
“I had an early conversation with Ryan about what he wanted to do with this film and the story he wanted to tell, and it was really compelling to me,” says Nyong’o. “The character I was going to be playing, Nakia, is really interesting. And I’d wanted to do an action movie — it’s been on my ‘bucket list’ for a long time, so this was going to check that off. But at the heart of the movie is a story about a new king trying to figure out how to rule. So it’s a very intimate story, as well as being spectacular.”
“Ryan is really stepping up to the occasion,” continues Nyong’o. “He has a passion for this film — a vision that he is sharing with us every day. He’s really got a taste, you know, and an eye for these things that just cannot be denied. It’s so exciting to see him grow in this way, to take on so much, be so ambitious and make it all happen.”
Meanwhile, back on set, after five or six takes (with Freeman tweaking a word here and there but otherwise remaining remarkably diligent and focused in his line reading), Coogler is satisfied and finally ready to move on to another scene. A buzzer sounds, signaling the end of the shot and a break; good-natured chatter and laughter breaks out in small pockets, tucked away in corners behind the laboratory setup. Boseman offers a congratulatory fist-bump to Freeman, and the cast moves on to honor other individual commitments — some running lines for the next scene, some getting their costumes adjusted. Boseman, though, takes a brief moment to himself, glancing around and seemingly soaking in the impressive surroundings.
“I don’t think Marvel has ever made a movie quite like this,” says Boseman, when asked what he thinks will most surprise viewers about the film. “When I saw DOCTOR STRANGE, I said, ‘Marvel has not made a movie like this.’ When I saw ANT-MAN, I said, ‘Marvel has not made a movie like this.’ And I genuinely think this will be another version of that, where you see Marvel sort of stepping out of its box to make a movie that is unlike the one you’ve previously seen. And that’s good, because each one has its own character. I think the character of this film is much more emotional than some of the other movies we have all seen. And it’s grounded in family in a much deeper way, because you’re dealing with culture. It’s not very often that you see a superhero, for instance, have a sister. That brings out a whole different personality in the superhero. And a lot of times, superheroes don’t know their father. But T’Challa does. So, there’s something about just those story points that (is different). T’Challa has a whole lot of people present and in his life. It’s a whole family. Not to say that it’s a family movie, per se, but it’s a family story, really. And I think that deepens the emotional fabric of BLACK PANTHER in a way that doesn’t normally happen in superhero movies.”
Don’t miss opening night of BLACK PANTHER, Friday, February 16 at AMC. Get your tickets, and check back on our blog for more behind-the-scenes looks at the newest Marvel movie.