“James Bond meets The Godfather.” That’s how executive producer Nate Moore describes Marvel Studios’ latest film, Black Panther. It’s not the answer we expected, but it accurately describes a high-tech spy adventure, set in an insular world where warring factions vie for leadership. But, last year on the Atlanta set of the highly anticipated superhero film, we learned there’s much, much more going on.
More so than almost any Marvel movie before it, Black Panther has had an impossible task. Guardians of the Galaxy introduced a whole new section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Thor created an entirely new civilization, Black Panther has to do both of those things while making them them feel realistic enough to exist on Earth. The setting is Wakanda, a fictional African country whose abundance of the metal vibranium has made it incredibly rich and technologically advanced. It may look otherworldly, but it’s part of our world, even though it remained hidden from the rest of it—at least until T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) revealed himself to the world as the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. But it’s when the prince-turned-king returns home that Black Panther, directed by Creed’s Ryan Coogler, begins.
The murder of King T’Chaka and T’Challa’s sudden ascension to the throne have put Wakanda in turmoil, as summed up by what Moore called the questions at the heart of the film: “Who rules Wakanda? How does Wakanda now deal with the loss of a king, who was a fair king, who people seemed to like? And is T’Challa ready to be the king of Wakanda?”
Boseman explained that, at the start of the film, T’Challa doesn’t have time to think about being a superhero. “He’s dealing with making the transition to filling the footsteps of his father,” the actor said. “So it’s probably going to feel like it’s more about the political unrest than the superhero, initially.”
That unrest will lead to a multi-faceted struggle between Wakanda and the CIA, in the form of Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman); fringe villains like Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis); power-hungry adversaries like Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan); and several other factions among the tribes that make up Wakanda. And that’s not to mention T’Challa’s conflicting desires to help the world at large, but also keep his country both safe and secret.
In designing the look of not just the people of Wakanda, but the country itself, Coogler asked his longtime production designer Hannah Beachler for help. The two literally traveled the world from Africa to Korea and back, looking for inspirations, and came back with a movie that looks incredibly unique. “He always drags me into things I’m not expecting I would ever do in my life,” Beachler said. “So it’s challenging and keeps me doing something new all the time.”
While on set last February, we were granted access to a conference room that had its walls lined with Beachler’s work. It was overwhelming, especially several months before anyone outside of the production had seen the expansive, evocative aesthetic of the film. There were images of a huge spiral staircases made of metal and sand. Sweeping vistas of Wakandan landmarks—like Mount Bashenga, the huge waterfalls of Warrior Falls, and the metal-meets-natural look of Golden City. “One of the things that we really wanted to be sure about Wakanda is the technology,” Beachler said. “I think that’s something that all the fans want to see. ‘What is this advanced civilization?’ But the other thing that we really talked about was keeping the traditions of several different African tribes. So we really delved in to what that was, and how we mix this new and this old.”
(Here’s a gallery of just some of that awesome art)
That new and old, a blending of African influences and advanced technology, is encapsulated in the designs of the Royal Talon and Talon Fighter. Each is an ultra-advanced ship, kind of like the Avengers’ Quinjet, but only if you look at them from the sides. From the top, the ships are actually in the shape of an African mask. And though that sounds like a fairly radical idea, Beachler said her design was rooted in a future that’s actually attainable. “It’s not far off,” Beachler said. “It’s there in the conceptual ideas and designs that people are bringing, and we just are going to take it and show people, ‘This is how it can be incorporated into a society.’ So it’s super-fun in that way.”
More fun designs included images of a vibranium mine (which kind of looked like a scene from Tron, set underground, and which may be the setting for one of Black Panther’s fight scenes), as well as T’Challa riding a rhino, which is one of Wakanda’s most precious animals.
Then there was the Hall of Kings and City of the Dead, which evoke both the lush world of Pandora in Avatar and Westeros from Game of Thrones, where it appears the Wakandans pay tribute to past Black Panthers. “In the architecture and some of the dressing you’ll get an idea of Panthers throughout the centuries,” Moore said. “I think we’ll see a little bit of it but I don’t know that it’ll be a big part of the film.”
Despite the executive producer’s claim, the concept art we saw suggested otherwise; it looked like T’Challa would perform some kind of astral projection that would allow the audience to see a bit of himself as a child, and Beachler hinted at this, too. “You see a lot of masks, all the panther masks, and you see how they do a lot of their rituals... and it will be fabulous and wonderful,” she said. “And then also the dream states that he goes into when he meets the ancestors.”
One of Black Panther’s other challenges is, if Wakanda is more advanced than anywhere else on Earth (and it is), it has to exceed any and everything we’ve seen before in Earth-based Marvel movies. “[Iron Man] was the one that set the pace for what you know as being futuristic [with Marvel],” Beachler said. “So we did have to be mindful of how we’re going to make it different. And we wanted Wakandans, and especially T’Challa, to do the same things, but not have it be as recognizable as what Tony Stark is doing.”
This technology is also where Black Panther finds its politics. “Just the idea of Wakanda being a nation in Africa that is the most technologically advanced in the world is a political statement without us having to go too much far past that.” Moore said. “I think if people knew they had vibranium, which they do, they were going to be conquered or at least be at war forever. So they did the smart thing. They hid that fact so nobody knows they have this stuff. That’s why they’ve been able to have these advancements. They don’t spend money on war. They don’t spend money defending themselves constantly. They just spend money on infrastructure which is something, again, that will feel topical.”
Because of the resources, advancement, and prosperity of Wakanda, a character like Shuri can exist. Played by Letitia Wright, Shuri is the smartest person in Wakanda and leader of their technological development. She’s also T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister. “It’s not very often that you see a superhero with a little sister,” Boseman said. “So I think it brings out a different part of his character. Usually you have the damsel in distress [but] I don’t think there are any damsels in distress in this movie.”
That’s an understatement. Coogler and his team have packed Black Panther with many, many strong black women. Paramount among them are the members of the Dora Milaje, the personal security for the King of Wakanda. However, while in the comics these warrior characters are at times sexualized, that’s not the case in this film. Moore described them as more of a “SEAL Team Six,” each with their own unique characteristics and personalities. “What we didn’t expect, and what [Coogler] really wanted to explore, is the depth of the emotional connections between T’Challa and those individuals,” he said. In other words, according to costume designer Ruth Carter, “We didn’t want the guy in the skin suit walking around with the girls in the bathing suits.”
In addition to the Dora Milaje, another classic Black Panther character in the film is Erik Killmonger, played by Coogler’s longtime collaborator Michael B. Jordan. The actor said while the character is certainly a villain, he’d more accurately described him as a “revolutionary.”
“True villains, the really good ones and the interesting ones, the watchable ones, truly believe what they’re doing is the right thing,” Jordan said. “And if you can somehow blur that line for the people… if you can kind of get them to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won.” So it seems Killmonger’s taste for power will have some form of selfless motivation to it, while Jordan will act them out in nearly unrecognizable fashion. His costume looks like a military Dragon Ball Z mash-up, complete with blue armor plates, beads holding it together, fatigue pants, gold teeth, and dreadlocks.
Killmonger isn’t the only other villain T’Challa must deal with in Black Panther. There’s also Ulysses Klaw, played by Andy Serkis, first seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. His performance there sets the tone here. “Klaw doesn’t really trust or work with anybody; he is his own man,” Serkis said. “He does deals with people, he interacts, but he doesn’t form allegiances or alliances with anyone. Ultimately, he’s a lone wolf. He has these pop-up groups wherever he happens to be in the world.”
Those uncertain alliances seemed to be at the center of the scene Coogler and his team were filming when we were on set. The scene shot on February 3, 2017 featured Klaw, Killmonger, T’Challa, Ross, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira), and took place at a CIA safehouse in South Korea where Klaw has been captured. T’Challa and Okoye have just shown up and Ross is upset with them. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before,” he says. “How much more do you know?” Just then, Nakia bursts in, speaking quickly in the African language Hausa. Suddenly a bomb goes off, the wall comes down, the window to the interrogation room cracks, and in storms KIllmonger and his crew, guns blazing. In the attack, T’Challa somehow changes into his Black Panther suit and jumps on top of a grenade to save everyone, while bullets fly everywhere.
This scene was shot practically, including the two explosions. A major safety meeting was held on set beforehand and multiple rehearsals took place to make sure everyone was perfect on the timing. Boseman dynamically pushed himself up off the ground to really sell the grenade explosion. Multiple takes, increasing the coverage of the scene, were shot throughout the day.
The actors were unsurprisingly secretive about why Killmonger would be breaking Klaw out of this situation, as well as the rest of the film’s plot. However, Moore said the film’s main inspirations come from the current comic run of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and the classic Black Panther stories of Christopher Priest, as well as some of the designs from those runs. There will be humor, but tonally Black Panther will be more Winter Soldier than Ant-Man. And though this is the last Marvel film which will be released before Avengers: Infinity War, it’s not a set-up for that film.
“We wanted to give Ryan the freedom to tell a story that wasn’t relying on other things that were happening in the MCU,” Moore said. “Now that doesn’t mean what happens in the film won’t have ripples in the MCU, but the film itself isn’t relying on other plot points in the MCU.”
In the end though, everyone involved really just wants fans to fall in love with the Black Panther and his country. “Imagine a whole world that is going to open up to audiences,” Moore said. “I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Black Panther opens February 16.
*Correction: We had incorrectly labeled Hausa as an only south African language. That has been amended.