Is Black Panther the first movie in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe with something in particular on its mind? More precisely, is it the first MCU movie with a definite burden — a sense of being set amid a larger discussion that can’t and won’t be ignored?
Until now, the closest thing to an idea running through the MCU franchise has been, I guess, distrust and fear of the military-industrial complex, of the erosion of freedom in the name of security. The original Iron Man turned on Tony Stark’s discovery that, as a weapons manufacturer, he was the bad guy. Ever since then, global threats in one Marvel movie after another have implicated either Tony himself, one of his rivals or partners, or their top customer, the U.S. government (including SHIELD, which turned out to be radically corrupted by the evil Hydra).
Yet this has been less real concern than a trope; less a political point of view than a way of dodging political controversy. (Reinventing the Chinese supervillain Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as a British actor fronting for an American industrialist was a way to keep selling tickets in China.) Tony and Nick Fury might get the world into one scrape after another, but they’re always there to get us out. (Are they perhaps a little like Homer Simpson’s incoherent ode to alcohol: “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”?)
Now consider how Black Panther establishes our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), soon to be crowned king of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda: dropping from the sky onto a convoy of Nigerian insurgents transporting terrified girls and women kidnapped from nearby villages. Consider how different this introductory sequence is from an analogous scene in the original Iron Man with the armored Avenger-to-be dropping down out of the sky into the midst of a Afghanistan village under attack by the terrorist cell that held him earlier in the film. The international terror cell in Iron Man had no political or thematic significance beyond implicating Stark Industries in global violence. When Iron Man showed up to clean house, he was merely taking responsibility for his mistakes; the innocent civilians he rescued were just window dressing. The scene in Black Panther, by contrast, transparently references the hundreds of Nigerian women enslaved by Boko Haram. (The women in their head scarfs scan as Muslims, the main victims of Islamic extremism.)
As it happens, Black Panther is not here to fight these insurgents or to rescue these women. Instead, he’s looking for someone who is: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his one-time girlfriend and an officer in a Wakandan all-female special-forces unit called the Dora Milaje. Despite Wakanda’s strictly isolationist politics, Nakia feels a responsibility on behalf of her nation to those in need on their doorstep — and it turns out that this extends to a nervous young militant who might be almost as much an unwilling captive as the enslaved women he guards.
This scene’s presence, like Nakia’s, expresses a global conscience, not a personal one. How could one make a superhero movie set in Africa, in a technologically advanced African nation with no history of foreign oppression or colonization, and not address Africa’s humanitarian and historical crises, including violence, terror and the legacy of colonialism? For that matter, how could one make an entry in the biggest Hollywood mega-franchise of all time, with an almost all-black, mostly American cast, and not address the black experience in America? The answer is that probably many filmmakers could, but Ryan Coogler, the writer-director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, is not one of them. (Some spoilers follow.)
Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler’s last two films, is outstanding as a terrific villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, whose grievances and master plan are an indictment of the failings and sins of Wakanda as well as the United States (and, with the US, any nation where black skin has been a mark of discrimination). Some of the beats and motifs here too directly echo last year’s lightweight Thor: Ragnarok, which also turned on a contested royal succession, a villain with a secret past and a grudge rooted in the hidden sins of a royal father, and (thanks to Kiwi director Taika Waititi) an anti-colonial backbeat. But where Asgard’s history and doom fatally never mattered in Ragnarok, Black Panther cares passionately about Wakanda: its peoples, its architecture, its technology. This Wakanda is a dream or myth of Africa unplundered by colonialism and uncorrupted by slavery, flush with resources, culturally vibrant, rich in pageantry.
What Gene Roddenberry’s Federation was to American culture (and for all its diversity Star Trek was always deeply culturally American), Wakanda might be to Africa, or for Afrocentrists: a futuristic aspirational ideal; an alternate cultural identity of the imagination; a way of taking pride in the best of what we are and thinking about what we could become. (For a quarter century this style of aesthetic has been called “Afrofuturism,” but it’s never broken out on the big screen in this way before.)
Black Panther’s concerns are rooted in real-world injustices in and beyond sub-Saharan Africa. This is a movie in which the white villain, Andy Serkis’s gleefully malicious Ulysses Klaue (introduced in Age of Ultron), sports a Cape Town accent, while the black villain, stealing an important artifact from the African wing of a British museum, points out that the stuff in that wing was stolen in the first place by the English. (Later, as the black villain talks about black communities being over-policed, you realize this is Fruitvale Station’s Oscar Grant talking.)
For all the dignity and bearing that Boseman brings to the role, T’Challa isn’t the most interesting character. On the flip side, he’s a rare big-screen superhero who’s actually decent, conscientious and honorable by character, like Wonder Woman or Captain America. Helping to humanize him, T’Challa is surrounded by a stronger supporting crew than any other Marvel hero — including a larger crew of strong, capable women than any major comic-book movie to date except Wonder Woman, and then only on Themyscira. The opening act has some fun with the idea of T’Challa freezing “like an antelope in headlights” at the sight of Nakia. There’s also his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a smart-mouthed tech whiz who plays Q to her big brother’s 007, outfitting him with all the toys. Danai Gurira embodies ferocity as General Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje, and Angela Bassett is appropriately regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda.
A federation of five tribes ruled by a king chosen through single combat, Wakanda is blessed by a primordial meteor strike with a rich store of the extraordinary element vibranium, which seems to have no end of amazing properties. Among other things, the vibranium-rich soil of Wakanda produces a potent plant from which a drug is distilled that bestows “the power of the panther” on the king of Wakanda. (This power — basically Captain America-style super-soldier enhanced strength, toughness and agility — is said in legend to be a gift from the “panther goddess,” and with the powers comes a trance and a vision in which one seems to meet the spirits of one’s ancestors.)
Following ancient custom, T’Challa’s ascent to the throne is marked by a colorful ritual at a waterfall involving single combat with any challengers from the other clans. That no one ever questions whether this method of adjudicating claims to the throne — traditionally fatal to the loser — is the best way to select the leader of the world’s most technologically advanced nation is among Black Panther’s odder problems. Thus we get a scene in which one challenger, roundly defeating his rival, accosts onlookers with rhetorical questions about whether the losing party is really the kind of person who can lead Wakanda into the future. Because, you know, how can someone hope to lead a technological superpower if he can’t even beat up another dude who has trained all his life for a battle like this? This tunnel vision plays out pretty much to the end; it seems that either T’Challa or his rival must kill the other, and no other solution seems in the offing.
There are other flaws. Although the design and look of the film is generally excellent, the action sequences generally suffer from the usual Marvel jitters, and the climactic battle sequence is marred by particularly sloppy computer imagery. But the commitment of the outstanding cast — which also includes Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as the warrior W’Kabi and Winston Duke as M’Baku, the defiant but honorable head of a clan with mountain gorilla trappings — goes a long way toward selling the action in spite of technical problems. (Martin Freeman reprises his role as CIA agent Everett K. Ross from Captain America: Civil War; the casual viewer might be forgiven for not noticing that he is not in fact Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, who was killed in The Avengers and is, as far as I know, still dead.)
Black Panther isn’t the visual breakthrough that Doctor Strange was, and the filmmakers haven’t yet figured out how to make its protagonist as engaging as his supporting cast. Still, they succeed where it counts: Black Panther makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe a bigger, more interesting, more engaging place, one where for the first time women and people of color aren’t limited to token supporting roles. Along with Wonder Woman, it marks the dawn of a new era of Hollywood fantasy in which heroes really can look like anyone — and are allowed to care deeply about honor and justice. If formulaic superhero adventures must dominate the big screen, let’s have more like this.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.