For a major studio solely in the business of making blockbuster tentpole movies, Marvel, to its credit, does take its fair share of risks. Casting Robert Downey Jr, an actor coming out of a decade or so of drug and alcohol addiction, and whose last film as a lead, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," made under $5 million at the box office, as the lead in "Iron Man" was certainly a risk, but one that paid off handsomely. Making their next big character a space Viking, and hiring Kenneth Branagh, a helmer known more for his work with Shakespeare than blockbusters, was another roll of the dice. And perhaps the biggest of all was going into production on "The Avengers," a vastly expensive team-up of their characters, before they knew that "Thor" and "Captain America" were hits. And that one turned out to be a $1.5 billion hit. So the risks are paying off.
And Marvel continues to make smart, but potentially troublesome bets that won't necessarily pay off. The studio brought in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" director Shane Black to helm "Iron Man 3," and the "Thor" and "Captain America" sequels are being looked after by filmmakers who've worked principally in TV. And on Saturday at Comic-Con, they announced arguably their most ambitious film yet: "Guardians Of The Galaxy," based on the space-faring super team that includes among its members a bald, green alien, a badass ninja lady, a tree, and a talking raccoon. It's their biggest gamble to date, without a question. But something at a Comic-Con press conference made that feel particularly sour.
The studio's co-president Louis D'Esposito (who helmed the upcoming "Item 47" short), responded to a question about the possibility of a "Black Panther" film, as was suggested by a report a few months back, and responded "He has a lot of the same characteristics of a Captain America: great character, good values… But it's a little more difficult, maybe, creating [a world like Wakanda, the African country of which the character, T'Challa, is the ruler]. It's always easier basing it here. For instance, 'Iron Man 3' is rooted right here in Los Angeles and New York. When you bring in other worlds, you're always faced with those difficulties."
And Twitch put it better than we ever could with their headline: "Marvel: We Can Make A Movie About A Talking Raccoon But A Black Man Is 'A Little More Difficult.'" Given that "Thor" managed to involve, again, a space Viking from Asgard, and the "Guardians Of The Galaxy" will presumably have to introduce characters from all over space, it feels spectacularly disingenuous of D'Esposito to say that it's harder to set up Black Panther's world.
Marvel is, of course, under no obligation to make "Black Panther." They can make whatever they like, it's their money. But there seems to be a definite fan base out there to see a "Black Panther" movie (our piece on potential casting for the film is one of our most popular of the last few months), and it would certainly be less of a headache for the studio than a CGI space epic. And yet "Guardians Of The Galaxy" came first, and given D'Esposito's response, it seems that the studio, as risky as they've been, are actively afraid of making a "Black Panther" movie.
To be clear, we're not accusing anyone at Marvel of racism, or anything like that. We're sure they're excited to add "Black Panther" to their stable, and there are bound to be advocates there who want to push forward with this film. But right now, they're scared of doing so in fear of putting a box-office ceiling on the film, and in particular, of doing so internationally. Global grosses have been key to the success of their recent films — 60% of the take from "Thor" came from abroad, and 58% for "The Avengers," and the perception is that, Will Smith aside, international audience don't turn up to see African-American stars.
And to a degree, that could be backed up by statistics. Internationally, if you exclude Will Smith pictures, the only movies in the all-time international top-grossers with a black actor appearing in anything close to a leading role are… Roland Emmerich's "2012," in which Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover took leads alongside John Cusack; and "The Matrix Reloaded," in which Laurence Fishburne plays second fiddle to Keanu Reeves. In the U.S all-time top 100, you also get "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rush Hour 2," but each were more than a decade ago (in the case of the former, closer to 30 years ago). And you know what uther movies aren't in the top 100 all-time grossers? "Thor" and "Captain America."
But Marvel is in a position to change things. No one went to see Robert Downey Jr, or Chris Hemsworth, or Chris Evans headline films before they headlined Marvel movies either. And with Will Smith still being the biggest movie star in the world, we simply don't buy that international audiences are somehow racially biased against African-American actors ("Hancock" and "I Am Legend," sold entirely on Smith alone, sit pretty at number 60 and number 73 in the all-time international charts, with "Men In Black 3," which people aren't going to see because of Josh Brolin, at 65 and climbing).
Marvel has now reached the position at which they've successfully created a brand, and we suspect that if they make a Marvel-labelled "Black Panther" movie, people will turn up in large numbers because it's from the people behind "The Avengers." To say that it's tricky to start a film off in a fictional African country, when they've brought "Thor" from Asgard to Budget-Friendly Backlot, New Mexico, and when "Mad Max" sequel "Fury Road" is shooting in Namibia, Africa, because it's cheaper than doing so in Australia, it stinks of cowardice. If the script's not right for the film, say that. But you start to lose goodwill when you make excuses.