A few days ago my sister, in a text that made me question whether we were truly siblings, asked me if Black Panther was a superhero movie or if it was about the Black Panther movement. When told it was the former, she responded with, “People are acting like it’s about the movement.” And I can see where she might get that from. Black Panther has been met with such incredible anticipation and pride from the black community that it dwarfs any we’ve seen from a Marvel movie, which is saying something. The reason is pretty obvious: we’ve been waiting a lot of years for a superhero movie that captures the black experience and celebrates black culture, showing a hero who is unquestionably powerful, unquestionably regal, unquestionably black.
Black Panther is a comic book movie like no other. All props to Blade, the Marvel film franchise Wesley Snipes carried and laid the groundwork for a lot of what we see today, but Black Panther is a completely different animal that explores topics the genre has never scraped the surface of. Colonialism, racial identity, technology vs. legacy, nativism, all of these and more are tapped into by the brilliant, complex script by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (working with Joe Robert Cole). Some of these themes are familiar to Coogler from his breakout drama Fruitvale Station, which he then brought into the mainstream with Creed. Now on the biggest platform of his career Coogler has set out to education and entertain, while staying firmly, and sometimes frustratingly, within the Marvel framework.
Picking up from threads left behind by Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther then basically discards the rest of the MCU and operates on its own, a lot like the African nation of Wakanda itself. Wakanda is the home of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) aka Black Panther, who has taken up the mantle of king since the death of his father, T’Chaka. The film sets up this backstory through flashback and a pair of extensive preludes, a necessary evil given the lack of a true origin story. Wakanda is a technological marvel hidden away from society in order to protect their most precious resource, vibranium, the strongest metal in the world with properties that range from militaristic to holistic. You can create weapons of war with it (like Captain America’s shield) or use it to heal. The title of Wakandan king comes not only with heavy political responsibilities, but physical ones. While he is imbued with special abilities, they are removed as part of an elaborate ritual trial by combat, which is an impressive introduction to who T’Challa is on his own. But we like him in his jet black panther suit, too, equipped with kinetic absorbers and anti-gravity boots and everything Bruce Wayne wishes he had in Gotham.
The simple plot masks the complexities underneath. Longtime Black Panther villain Ulysses Klau (Andy Serkis, hugely enjoyable) is on the move, having stolen a vibranium artifact with the help of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a skilled Black Ops assassin whose hatred for Western colonialism is only matched by his hatred for Wakanda’s isolationism. There are black people around the world in need of saving and Wakanda, which has all the resources in the world to do something about it, does absolutely nothing. They have the technological and medical advancements to change life for everyone on the planet, but they hide under the guise of a poor people still living in huts and herding sheep.
Killmonger has other reasons to want to see Wakanda burn, reasons that make him the most fascinating “villain” Marvel has ever produced. Going beyond Jordan’s irresistible swagger in the role, Erik has legitimate beef with Wakanda for what it took away from him. Literally abandoned by his people, he’s forced to fend for himself without any connection to his culture, without knowledge of his history, without the technological gifts afforded every citizen of Wakanda. It’s a frightening parallel to the plight many black men face today, having grown up without fathers, and ending up trapped in an endless cycle of incarceration and violence.
Coogler doesn’t hit you over the head with such notions, but works them into the story without overwhelming the audience. There’s so much going on that it’s a credit to Coogler and Cole that it never becomes burdensome. There are what seem like two dozen characters and motivations to sort through, and nearly all of them could have an entire movie build around them, that’s how fascinating they are. Of course there’s T’Challa, and the phrase “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” was made for people like him. As he struggles to live up to his father’s standard he must weigh concerns from the tribal leaders about engaging with the outside world, while also facing threats from within. The tension between him and Killmonger sees them as flipsides of the same coin. A simple twist of fate could have put them squarely in the other’s shoes. It’s a dynamic that mirrors some of the best comic books have to offer, like Batman/Joker and Professor X/Magneto, but seen through the lens of race and privilege. Obviously, Marvel can’t always hope to find gold like they have with these two, but they ought to use Killmonger as the bar for where their villains should be from now. No more Ultrons, please.
The film has an incredibly strong female presence, as well. The Dora Milaje, or “Adored Ones”, are the female warrior class that stand by T’Challa’s side at all times. Danai Gurira cuts a fearsome figure as the spear-wielding Okoye, while Lupita Nyong’o is T’Challa’s former flame Nakia, a spy who left Wakanda’s borders. There’s also Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s brilliant, wise-cracking younger sister and Wakanda’s resident tech wiz. If it can be dreamed up, Shuri can build it with vibranium. I think these three could give Wonder Woman’s Amazons a proper run for their money, that’s all I’m sayin’. Wright gets most of the movie’s best one-liners and light-hearted racial jabs, usually at the expense of CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who is referred to as “colonizer” and “broken white boy” in hilarious fashion.
It’s safe to say there hasn’t been a Marvel movie that looks like Black Panther does. Production designer Hanna Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter have pulled from ancient tribal history and African heritage, and merged them with colorful, futuristic flourishes. Forget the superheroics, you could check out Black Panther as a colorful costume drama and be fully satisfied. There is so much to look at in every frame that it almost becomes too much to take in, but that’s what repeat viewings are for.
There are problems, of course, because every Marvel movie has them. I was disappointed in some of the action scenes, which feature dicey CGI (often shot in long takes which is unforgiveable) and confusing choreography. A multi-level battle inside a Busan casino is strangely mediocre, although I remember being dazzled by it when they debuted the footage at Comic-Con last summer. Their may have been some editing done to it. Black Panther sets its characters on such rich, complicated ground that I wished the final battle wasn’t a mindless melee, but a conclusion with a bit more subtlety. That said, this is a Marvel superhero movie and the beast must be fed. T’Challa ends up right where the Marvel Universe needs his character to be, in the place that is easiest for the franchise to move forward as part of the whole. It’s frustrating, but understandable.
A million thinkpieces have already been written about the cultural importance of Black Panther, and now that they’ve actually seen the movie they will write a million more. There is an undeniable thrill that comes with seeing black people represented in this way, at a time when too many in Hollywood are still trying to figure out the best way to serve us as an audience. Black Panther proves that you can make a movie that is significant to the black audience, and just a damn good superhero movie that everyone can enjoy. Marvel has a new ruler on the throne. Long live the king!