When Ryan Coogler was a kid in Oakland, California, a cousin got him hooked on comic books. X-Men. Spider-Man. He liked all of them, but he was looking for more.
"I went to the comic [shop] by my school and asked if they had any black characters," Coogler recalled.
That was the moment Coogler discovered the Black Panther.
While in film school at University of Southern California, where he graduated in 2011, that love of comics remained — and after Marvel Studios started its connected cinematic universe with 2008's box office hit Iron Man, Coogler began imagining that one day he might direct a superhero movie.
Coogler's dreams and Marvel's aspirations would eventually meet, helping to bring the greatest black superhero to film. His Black Panther, which opened in New Zealand cinemas yesterday, has had over-the-top reviews and is expected to bring in US$165 million ($224m) on opening weekend in the US.
In Atlanta, while filming pickups for his 2015 hit Creed, Coogler was contacted by Nate Moore, the only African-American producer at Marvel Studios. Moore had just seen Coogler's 2013 directorial debut, Fruitvale Station with Joe Robert Cole, who would go on to co-write Black Panther with Coogler. Moore was also in Atlanta, working on Captain America: Civil War, which marked the cinematic debut of the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman.
Moore thought Coogler could be a good fit for a solo Black Panther film. Initial talks with Ava DuVernay (Selma) had fizzled. Moore knew the story would deal with black men, fathers and sons, loss — themes Coogler's films dealt with impressively.
Despite those superhero dreams at USC, Coogler was noticeably hesitant. "He was sort of very rightly a bit wary of taking on a movie of this size because Marvel has a reputation of being tough on directors," Moore said. "But we knew that he could get the character's story right and that [would] make everything else go."
The two had dinner in Los Angeles, and Coogler would eventually meet Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
"I ended up really liking them," Coogler said.
Once hired, Coogler wanted to get to know his star, Boseman. He was already impressed with Boseman's presence as T'Challa (the character's name under the mask) and his inventing of a Wakandan accent.
"But," Coogler said, "I still had to [make sure] he and I could get along".
To go up against Boseman's hero, Coogler cast his Creed and Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan as Black Panther villain Erik Killmonger.
Coogler, Cole and Jordan would craft Killmonger to explore one of the film's deepest themes: the relationship between Africans and African-Americans.
"T'Challa represents ... an African that hasn't been affected by colonisation," Coogler said. "So what we wanted to do was contrast that with a reflection of the diaspora. But the diaspora that's the most affected by it. And what you get with that is you get African-Americans. You get the African that's not only a product of colonisation, but also a product of the worst form of colonisation, which is slavery. It was about that clash."
Coogler's interest in exploring such themes began in his youth, when his parents explained to him what it meant to be a black man in America.
"It's something that you have to know. If you don't know, it could cost you your life," Coogler said.
Coogler says Marvel Studios had no issues with him making a film that had a stronger sociological message than its typical film does.
"Very early on [I was clear] that I wanted to explore these themes. And they were totally game," Coogler said.
Something that will be new to many audiences is not just the nearly all-black cast in a superhero movie, but its sci-fi-influenced, Afro-futuristic world. Coogler is also aware of how seeing black actresses such as Lupita Nyong'o, Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira in such heroic roles will have an impact on young people.
Back when Coogler was a kid at the comic shop looking for a hero he could relate to, he understood the importance of the ones in real life.
"Our neighbourhoods, our families were run by women who look like Lupita and Danai," Coogler said. "That's how my mum looks. I saw my mum be a warrior, a leader, a loving wife and a magic mum every day ... I wasn't seeing that in pop culture."