Black Panther debuted last weekend to rave reviews and over $200 million at the box office. It’s a pop culture sensation that will be discussed and referenced for years to come, a triumph critically, commercially, and for black representation in film. But without the major talent behind the camera, writer-director Ryan Coogler, this doesn’t happen.
At 31 years old, Coogler’s career has escalated both quickly and logically. In less than five years, he has gone from unknown Sundance filmmaker to in-demand blockbuster director, but he wasn’t handed the reins to a Marvel movie before he had proven himself. With each project, he’s taken a more ambitious stride, going from small indie drama to mid-sized sports movie to big-budget superhero spectacle in an effortless fashion, without sacrificing his own personal touch on each project.
Back in 2013 the Oakland native’s career got off to a fast start. His first film, Fruitvale Station, won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance. On a small budget, Coogler was able to put together a moving, nuanced, and heartbreaking depiction of Oscar Grant, a young African-American that was killed by a police officer in 2009. We follow Grant throughout his last day in a “slice of life” manner. We watch him perform quotidian tasks like washing the dishes after dinner. We also watch him unknowingly say goodnight to his daughter for the final time. It’s heavy stuff, but Coogler doesn’t present it in a melodramatic way. Instead, Fruitvale Station is considered, thoughtful, and, in the end, quite powerful.
It was also the beginning of his collaboration with Michael B. Jordan, who played Grant and would go on to star in Coogler’s Rocky sequel Creed in 2015. Turns out, the Coogler-Jordan duo was the perfect one to revive Sylvester Stallone’s series. Creed doesn’t totally feel like it’s set in the same universe as the other Rocky movies, which could be cartoonish and preposterous at times. No, this one is grittier with real emotional depth, featuring a believable and heartfelt love story between Jordan’s Adonis Creed (son of Apollo from the first four Rockys) and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca.
However, I was equally blown away by the technical and visual feats Coogler pulled off for Creed. Take the stunning long take of the first fight.
This is one shot with no cuts for four and a half minutes. The choreography and planning to do this is off the charts. Plus, boxing movies have been around for decades, so we’ve seen plenty of fight scenes where it’s either quick editing or epic slo-mo. Here Coogler treats us to something different. It’s impossible to peel your eyes away from this scene.
This being a Rocky movie, there are also training montages (the one with the motorcycles near the end is unforgettable) and a thrillingly staged final fight. Coogler was somehow able to deliver both a rousing and uplifting sports movie and a fresh take on the genre.
Considering he had so capably handled a major franchise with Creed, it made sense when Coogler was given the keys to a Marvel flick. Even the most optimistic among us couldn’t have foreseen the success of Black Panther. Coogler has created an invigorating and genuinely interesting sociopolitical superhero movie. The world-building of Wakanda is immaculate, the action sequences are striking, and the characters are compelling and complex. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger will probably go down as one of the great superhero villains and even the supporting roles are fleshed out, providing Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira space to create memorable characters.
I’ve long thought the floor and ceiling for Marvel movies is incredibly narrow. At worst, they are light, fun, and forgettable trifles. At best, they are light, fun, and impressive mass entertainment. They all tend to feel like the same movie at their base level, and while Black Panther does get a little CGI-heavy and has some minor narrative problems, we can give Coogler a lot of credit for making this superhero film seem urgent and relevant to our world.
What Coogler has done by the age of 31 — direct three films popular with both critics and audiences, with at least one at blockbuster scale — is almost unprecedented.
Most big-name directors were a little bit older by the time they really broke into the mainstream. Christopher Nolan was 35 when he directed his first blockbuster (Batman Begins). George Lucas was 33 when he unleashed his Star Wars on the world in 1977. Quentin Tarantino had made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction by 31, but his third successful film wouldn’t come until his mid-30s.
Others didn’t have quite the success Coogler has had at his age. Paul Thomas Anderson was a true wunderkind, making Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia before he turned 30, but those didn’t enjoy near the same box office numbers. One of Coogler’s peers, La La Land and Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, just turned 33 and already has a Best Director Oscar under his arm. However, we’ll find out later this year if his next film First Man (about Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling) will be the smashing success of his last two.
The only real precedent that I can find for Coogler’s success so far is named Steven Spielberg.
Before he was the most famous director alive, Spielberg burst onto the scene with The Sugarland Express, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all before the age of 31. Known as the movie that created the summer blockbuster, Jaws remains #7 on the all-time box office list (adjusted for inflation). Spielberg was 28 when it was released. As someone that will be 28 this summer, that fact astounds me. Since then, he has continued to entertain and dazzle audiences for five decades — and his first three films were a good indicator of where his career would go.
This isn’t to overhype Coogler and claim he’s the Next Spielberg. It’s just to put into perspective what he’s already accomplished at such a young age. We’ve already seen Coogler impress on the biggest of stages, now we get to see how many more great moviegoing experiences he has in store for us.