Marvel’s new film is an undeniably flashy superhero flick, but the deeper questions it poses and the larger themes it touches on make it a film worth remembering.
“Black Panther” came out in the middle of Black History Month, and for good reason. The film is unapologetically Black, proud of Africa and black culture everywhere. So much so that there’s only two significant white characters, whose parts don’t even overlap.
The film follows T’Challa, first introduced as the Black Panther in “Captain America: Civil War,” as he becomes king and fights to decide where his country, Wakanda, will go in the future. It opens with an aesthetically beautiful retelling of Wakanda’s history, and how vibranium, an alien metal, has allowed the country to become the most advanced, but also most isolated, nation on Earth.
A mix of the future and the past, Wakanda is one of the best recent examples of Afro-futurism. Magnetic-levitated trains speed next to more traditional African markets, and while everyone wears vibranium-laced clothes, their clothing reflects tribal identities. In keeping with their past, Wakandans maintain their religion. The Black Panther is an emissary of the panther goddess Bast, empowered by a heart-shaped herb to protect the country.
The utopian beauty of Wakanda is especially striking given the second scene in the movie takes place in 1990s Oakland. While it establishes Wakandans have spies everywhere, it also offers a contrast with Wakanda. The isolationist country has thrived, unwilling to share its advancements with the world, both to preserve its security and to not impose their ways on the world. Others of African blood, however, have been taken advantage of and live in an unequal state.
This, to Erik Killmonger, played outstandingly by Michael B. Jordan, is a disappointment that deserves fixing. Although initially Klaue, a man named for his prosthetic arm, appears to be the villainous lead, Killmonger emerges instead. He marks a Marvel villain with a sensible, even understandable, motive behind his deeds. Unlike so many others, who seem to be in it for some vague definition of power or childhood trauma, Killmonger has childhood trauma but also an understanding that Wakanda has stood by as people have been tortured, enslaved and killed, out of a blind allegiance to tradition. As an audience, it’s easy to identify with his desires, if not his means, because it’s hard to justify Wakanda’s isolationism given the fate of black people around the world. Killmonger also serves to ask the major question of the movie: what kind of king will T’Challa be?
Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, a somewhat soft-spoken king, uncertain of his readiness for the role, but assured when righting wrongs as the Black Panther. By his side are mostly women: his sister, Shuri, is a tech genius better than Tony Stark; his general, Okoye, leads the all-female Dora Milaje, bodyguards to the king; and his ex-lover, Nakia, is a Wakandan spy, or “wardog,” who refuses to sit by as others suffer. These women are definite equals to T’Challa and aren’t objectified; instead, they’re allowed bring their unique skills to the table. The men by T’Challa’s side are W’Kabe, a tribal leader who agrees with the push for opening Wakanda, and M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari, a mountainous tribe who are somewhat separate from the rest of Wakanda. Each of these characters is allowed the space to break from a simple stereotype and experience conflict and growth.
The movie slips into and out of the comedic, but the timing, on most of these moments, feels right. Seeing T’Challa and Shuri interact is both the best and worst of having a younger sibling, and sly comments slip into otherwise tense scenes. But the movie is also unafraid to deal with solemn points too; there were definite lines and moments that hit hard and forced the audience to deal with history.
Killmonger, at one point, mentions that the sunsets in Wakanda are the best in the world. And the movie does its best to make that true; overall, it’s stunning. The dreamscape-esque scenes are probably the best example. The costuming is elegant and vibrant, and images of the lush countryside or bustling city made me want to move there immediately.
Of course, the arc of the movie is standard superhero plot. There’s several large-scale fight scenes, a car chase, technology to die for. There’s a touch of the spy genre in there too. It’s a flashy movie, but like T’Challa, also a thoughtful one.
Unlike most superhero movies, “Black Panther” deals with the political and social issues it raises, instead of shoving them aside in a battle scene at the end. Instead, Killmonger forces the conversation to stay on those issues. Wakandans are forced to evaluate what they are willing to do for their side of the argument. There’s no clear answers, but the movie offers none.
“Black Panther” has garnered such attention not only for being a good movie, but for its social implications. It’s the first black superhero movie since the “Blade” trilogy, featuring and celebrating a mostly black cast. It’s an uplifting vision of a world without the ravages of colonialism or colorism, creating a mythos so far unseen in the Marvel universe.