Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Marvel Studios, February 2018
Review by Joseph Allen Hill
A confession: growing up, I never liked Black Panther. I thought he was boring. My favorite black superheroes were Storm, Luke Cage, Cyborg, Night Thrasher, Vixen, characters with big personalities and dramatic storylines. Black Panther was bland, forgettable. I knew him mostly from appearances in Avengers comics and cartoons, where he was the member of the team who just went along with things, provided wise counsel to teammates, and mainly stayed out of the interpersonal drama that fueled the plots. Being an Avenger was just a job, a thing he had to do to make sure his country was safe from time-traveling clones and alien wars and Nazi bees. His friends, his family, his loves, his drama, his life, they were all in Wakanda. More than any other superhero, Black Panther is defined by his setting, and Black Panther without Wakanda is just a strong punch man dressed as a cat.
It is fitting, then, that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is not simply set in Wakanda, but an exploration of the place, both as a visually-rich techno-paradise, but also as a fantasy, a dream, made real. The titular superhero is at the center of the film, but what the story is really about is the nation of Wakanda, the people, the place, its past, and its future. And despite it being a fictional place, focusing on Wakanda allows Coogler to approach real-world themes of race and ethnicity, colonialism, post-colonial identity, and the ethics of resistance, all while balancing character-based drama and superhero spectacle. There are some stumbles along the way, but the film manages to do so much.
The film starts with a segment explaining Wakanda’s history. A meteorite made of vibranium, a strange metal with almost mystical properties, lands in ancient Wakanda. After years of conflict among the tribes, the leader of one the tribes, the Black Panther, becomes king of a united Wakanda, a mantle which is passed down as part of a hereditary kingship. Even in this opening, we get a glimpse of the conflict that will define the film. Wakanda thrives as a techno-paradise, a nation untouched by colonialism with technology that the rest of the world, even the sci-fi world of the MCU, can only imagine. But colonialism still exists in the MCU, along with slavery, apartheid, and all the familiar oppressions visited upon black people in our world. Wakanda embraces isolationism, hiding its treasures and its technologies, pretending to be a poor country not even worth exploiting.
The present action of the film begins with Chadwick Boseman’s T’challa preparing for his coronation as king and official Black Panther following the events of Captain America: Civil War. In short order, we are introduced to wide array of characters: the queen mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who left Wakanda to offer aid to people suffering in the outside world, genius little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), general of the Dora Milaje and T’challa’s bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), elder and advisor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), leader of the unintegrated Jabari tribe M’baku (Winston Duke), and T’challa’s white friend, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). All these characters have different ideas for the future of Wakanda, some wanting Wakanda to do good in the world, others to maintain its isolationist traditions. T’challa tries to balance them all as he takes on the mantle of Black Panther, a role he has trained for all his life but has seemingly never fully considered.
Of particular note here is how T’challa is surrounded by women. Where most Marvel films seem to struggle to fit in one or two female characters into overwhelmingly male stories, Black Panther manages to spotlight a variety of strong women, each with their own goals and relationships, active participants in the plot. While the film still ultimately centers around T’challa and his conflicts (I don’t think it passes the Bechdel test except maybe a couple conversations about vibranium), it still feels light years ahead of similar movies.
T’challa faces two primary antagonists. First, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), arms dealer and vibranium trafficker regarded in Wakanda as a war criminal for his part in an incident that led to the deaths of hundreds of Wakandans. Second, Michael B. Jordan’s Eric “Killmonger” Stevens, a former U.S. special forces operative with a mysterious connection to Wakanda and a vendetta against the royal family. Whereas Klaue serves largely as comic relief, Killmonger is the real villain and the primary mover of the plot. He is angry: angry at Wakanda for turning its back on the black diaspora, angry at T’challa for having an easy life as the son of a king, angry at the imperialism and racism and exploitation around the world. Whereas Nakia urges T’challa to expand Wakanda’s influence in order to provide humanitarian aid, Killmonger wants to create a new world order with Wakanda at the top. A few generations too young to be a member of the original Black Panther party, he feels connected to it, both as an Oakland native and as a man willing to do whatever it takes to fight against the evils and horrors of racism, even as it leads him down darker and darker paths.
The performances are, on the whole, spectacular, with Michael B. Jordan delivering a particularly moving and magnetic performance as Killmonger, a character who could very easily come across as an argument instead of a person. Black Panther is Michael B. Jordan’s third film with Ryan Coogler, and their rapport shines through. Winston Duke also steals the spotlight with M’baku, a relatively minor role that he imbues with both intensity and levity, transforming one Marvel’s most ill-considered characters (he used to be called Man-Ape) into one of the most interesting supporting characters in the MCU.
There were some issues with the film. By far its weakest element was its pacing. Like most Marvel movies, the film is a good twenty minutes too long. Killmonger appears in an early scene, only to disappear into an hour or so of table-setting before reappearing to get the central conflict of the movie started. Also, while most of the fights are well-shot and exciting, the climax feels a little muddled, with a lot of things happening for reasons that are not always clear. LGBT representation is non-existent in the film, which is very noticeable given how otherwise progressive the film is and the fact that Okoye is canonically queer in the source material. Finally, and this is perhaps a problem more with the genre than the film, the fact that this big, dramatic ideological conflict is ultimately resolved by two guys punching each other a bunch feels like a bit of a letdown.
Black Panther offers us a fantasy of black utopia, but it is not content to let us simply get lost in that fantasy. In mainstream superhero comics, it is more or less standard to ignore the logical implications of super-science and fantasy characters running around. Reed Richards never cures cancer. Iron Man never fixes global warming. Superman never gets rid of war. Black Panther resists the impulse, instead confronting the problems raised by the existence of a place like Wakanda head on, placing the real directly up against the imagined and allowing the two to rub against one another uncomfortably. In doing so, it finds meaning in a genre which can be frequently meaningless, simply by asking us a fundamental ethical question: What do we owe to others?
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Marvel Studios, February 2018
Review by Carrie Vaughn
I like to think of genre as a toolbox rather than as prescriptive formulae. Not necessarily a specific set of tropes, but a structure, a framework with more flexibility than one might expect. In that sense, horror becomes a method by which to evoke terror and discomfort in the audience. Mystery is a structure wherein characters must discover information that is withheld from them, and romance is a structure wherein characters must overcome obstacles to achieve their desires. This is how you can start to mix-and-match genres, and break down genre definitions. For example, combining the structure of a thriller with the emotional arc of a romance, or the pacing of action-adventure with the trappings of space opera. You combine the structure of one genre with the tropes of another, and the sky’s the limit.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe understands this, and so over the last ten years has been able to break out of conventional assumptions of what a superhero movie should be. A movie with superheroes can be a political thriller, a historical adventure, a gonzo space opera, a heist comedy.
A movie with superheroes can also be an Afrofuturist manifesto, which Black Panther clearly is. It’s a celebration of technology, character, ambition, rage, and hope, all against the backdrop of a multi-faceted, African-inspired world. We’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s also familiar enough to draw in anyone who loves superheroes.
Black Panther begins in the past: T’Chaka, the King of Wakanda, confronts his brother who has been sent to spy on the outside world. But N’Jobu has embarked on an agenda of his own, to bring the power of Wakanda to the masses. T’Chaka, committed to Wakanda’s traditional isolation, is forced to kill him—and then chooses to leave behind his young son. But we don’t find that out until later.
After this prologue, we meet T’Challa, the new King. (T’Chaka was killed in an attack during the events of Captain America: Civil War.) He inherits a kingdom in turmoil, with a couple of different ideologies about to bubble over: does Wakanda maintain its isolation, or is it time for the kingdom to reveal itself, and its technological riches based on possession of the rare metal vibranium, to the world? T’Challa is also the superpowered warrior Black Panther, dedicated to protecting his kingdom and people. He and his squad of really amazing warrior women and spies are after Klaue, who’s been stealing vibranium and selling it on the black market. Klaue eludes them with the help of a new partner: Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. But Erik is working on his own plan, kills Klaue, and uses his body as a passport for entry to Wakanda. Once there, he reveals his identity as T’Challa’s cousin and claims his blood right to fight for the throne. And as a former Navy SEAL and spec ops assassin, he’s got the ability to win. His goal: as King of Wakanda, he can use the country’s vast resources to take over the world and enact justice for billions of people of African descent, after centuries of oppression.
Killmonger finds allies among the Wakandans who also feel that the nation has stayed hidden for too long, and a civil war threatens to engulf the kingdom, unless T’Challa and his allies can persevere.
There’s a lot to process here.
One of the most important images in the film comes early on, during the prologue, when a group of young kids on an urban basketball court looks up at a strange glowing craft rising into the sky, shrouded by clouds. They seem to be gazing at an unreachable, dreamlike future. (This is T’Chaka, departing after killing N’Jobu.) It turns out that the film’s villain, Killmonger, is one of those kids, who after that glimpse is determined not to just attain that future for himself but to bring it to the rest of the world, by force if necessary. One of the final images of the film brings the theme full circle, acknowledging that however wrong Killmonger was in his methods, his motivation has merit: everyone deserves access to that inspiring future. This time, the glowing craft settles to the blacktop and is within reach for a new generation of kids. It’s this imagery that embodies the theme of the film.
The first time we see Erik, a million Hollywood stereotypes would lead us to believe that he’s a gangster. A thief. A thug. He isn’t, and I love this subversion. He’s very smart, very talented, very well trained—a real American hero, in any other movie. “He’s one of ours,” token white guy CIA Agent Ross declares. There’s a lot of subtext in that line. Erik is bitter, because being the best and brightest in America is still a big step down from being a prince in Wakanda, which was his birthright. Moreover, Erik Killmonger strongly suggests that Wakanda, with all its power, could have stopped the slave trade hundreds of years ago and thus saved millions of lives and a world of suffering. Instead, it chose isolation.
And . . . he’s not wrong. This is what gives the MCU’s best villains—Loki, the Vulture, Hela—their spark: They’re not entirely wrong.
There’s been a lot of commentary on Marvel’s “villain problem”: the propensity for facing the hero off against a villain who is a shadow version of himself, someone with exactly the same powers but who uses those powers for destruction and power rather than for good. Black Panther does the same thing, after the first-act red herring of crazed terrorist Klaue. The climactic scene here is two men in panther suits, one tinged silver, one tinged gold, battling in a fight to the death. Part of this is a plotting problem: when you create a superpowered hero, you want them to face off against someone who is a real challenge, a real threat. The easiest way to do that is with someone who is evenly matched, and the easiest way to do that is to give the villain the same powers.
But in Black Panther, that mirroring works so well thematically it’s hard to argue with it. Erik’s rage is understandable, and standing before T’Challa he sees exactly what he could have been, if history had taken a different course. We have cousins, one African, one American, and T’Challa has to ask himself what, if anything, do they owe each other, and what do both their paths mean for Wakanda, Africa, and the world as a whole. Erik, and addressing Erik’s grievances, are T’Challa’s responsibility.
The film’s story is firmly in the Marvel wheelhouse in other ways. A strong character arc drives the story—T’Challa learning to be his own king and not just his father’s heir, balancing Wakanda’s traditions with its future. Like other MCU movies, this one’s other strength is a whole cast of likeable competent characters, played by a great set of actors, backing up the hero. For me, T’Challa’s sister and tech genius Shuri steals the show.
The plot is familiar—a story of kings and heirs, fathers and sons and usurpers. It’s Arthur and Mordred, complete with journeys to the underworld to speak with the dead and the discoveries of dark legacies. T’Challa and Thor would probably have a lot to talk about if they sat down and compared notes about not feeling worthy of the thrones they’ve inherited, and about their fathers’ propensity for hiding dark secrets about their relatives. You can make an argument that the MCU relies overmuch on these very familiar stories. But when the results are this beautiful, and when it’s able to stretch those tropes in such interesting ways, the stories become familiar in the way of myths.
I also keep thinking about Wonder Woman, and how striking it is that these two movies that have generated so much conversation about representation came out within a year of each other, and at this particular moment in history. Both films have an army of brilliant badass women, a stylized animated sequence of exposition to explain how things got this way. They also both depict the fantasy of a secret kingdom where people like those depicted were never oppressed, where they live in a paradise of peace and accomplishment. An island of women, without men. A kingdom made up of diverse African cultures that was never colonized by Europeans. Both films share this dream, that their respective oppressed peoples were meant for better things, in a better world. And in both cases, this isn’t just the dream of paradise, whether it’s Wakanda or Themyscira: It’s also the chance to bring that dream into the real world by embodying those values in the shape of a true hero.
This is clearly a powerful, meaningful trope. What can we bring into our own world from these dreams of paradise? What can those dreams inspire?
A word about intended audiences: I am the whitest of suburban white girls whose first exposure to world music was Paul Simon’s Graceland. Some might argue that I am not the target audience of this film. I would argue that I am. I love the MCU. This is the MCU, for all the reasons I’ve discussed. Right now my lizard brain is writing gadgeteering roadtrip adventure fanfic where Tony Stark and Rocket can’t stop arguing and then Shuri walks in and invents FTL travel just because she can. She rolls her eyes at them a lot.
But is a film so rooted in Afrofuturism, so clearly intended for black audiences, even accessible to someone like me? Answer: It doesn’t actually matter! It is completely irrelevant whether a film like this is accessible to someone like me! We shouldn’t even be asking the question! I mean, no one ever asked if Iron Man or Captain America were accessible to black audiences. That’s the whole point. I can watch movies that aren’t aimed directly at me, and I can totally go along for that ride. Black Panther is what it is and is exactly what it needs to be to put Wakanda and its people front and center.
What isn’t accessible to me is what this movie means to someone of African descent. I know there’s so much more here than what I saw and felt, that there is so much more meaning for someone who may be seeing themselves on screen in roles like this for the first time, for people who have never seen their own heritage as inspiration for such an amazing world. I can’t speak to any of that. I shouldn’t even try. But I recognize that that layer of meaning is there.
You know what is a part of my heritage? Superhero stories. And superhero stories can be so wonderfully inclusive and expansive.
Black Panther leaves us with the science fictional exploration of what happens when a technologically superior, isolated nation reveals itself to the world. In the first credits stinger, T’Challa is introducing the true Wakanda to the U.N.—on his own terms, in the name of peace. From the audience, an official demands to know what Wakanda can possibly have to offer, and T’Challa dons this wonderful sly smile. What, indeed. It’s a meta-moment that seems to ask, would you like to see the sequel now? Would you like to see what we can really do? Yes, I would.
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