If the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a TV series, Black Panther would be the calm before the storm, the penultimate episode in a long running saga. But instead of being some elaborate set up for Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther goes beyond expectations and delivers something special.
“What happens now determines what happens to the rest of the world.” – T’Challa
Black Panther is a milestone achievement but not necessarily for the reason you assumed. Black Panther is the first black superhero within the cinematic universe for Marvel but of course there has been other black superheroes in the shape of Blade, Spawn, Luke Cage and Black Lightning. They are all positive examples and success within the genre. It’s no secret that Black Panther has been in development since 1992 when at one-point Wesley Snipes expressed a desire to be involved. Whilst that is significant especially in a growing time within the industry for diversity and representation, the milestone achievement stretches further.
Black Panther sets its ambitions high. This was a film not content at just being another introductory filler for the Marvel Cinematic Universe such as Ant-Man or Doctor Strange. This was not a film content at showcasing stereotypes of black characters as either criminals, gangsters, war generals, slaves or reprising controversial moments etched in history such as Uncle Remus from Songs of the South or the racist crows from Dumbo. This was not a film content at showing black characters as mere sidekicks or comic relief solutions. No. This was an empowerment on all levels – culturally, spiritually, mentally and historically. This was a reckoning, designed and blessed with knowledge and education that had a bravery in its execution.
This has been a long time coming. In the past few years we have seen a resurgence in black cinema. 12 Years a Slave, Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound, Hidden Figures, Selma, Get Out, Girls Trip and Moonlight have laid the foundation and paved the way. Black Panther becomes the tip of that iceberg and as Roy Wood, Jr. from The Daily Show would say, “we have reached peak blackness!”
Gone are the outdated connotations about Africa being poor, living in huts, descending to uncivilised acts of savagery as old colonial masters would say or “shithole countries” as reasoned by an ill-informed President. No. No. No. We are kings. We are warriors. We are royalty. We are inventors. We are leaders. We are educators and mentors. As much as Wakanda is a fictional nation, it is a rich, technologically advanced and a thriving metropolis that is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world. There is so much inspirational pride from this film and it is glorious. I haven’t felt so in love with a fictional country since Zamunda in Coming to America!
You can probably tell that I am enamoured by Black Panther and I have every right to be. From the distinct number of tribes and traditions, the beautiful emphasis of culture through hair, clothing, language (Igbo, Xhosa) and its majestic music, as a Nigerian the authenticity struck a deep chord which many Africans can relate to. When you take away the negative reminders that we constantly see in mainstream media, there is a natural beauty from the continent that is rarely emphasised. Black Panther takes that opportunity and fills that vacuum with a vision of afro-futurism and a self-assured confidence. That praise belongs to director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station). By performing an extensive amount of research on African cultures and heritage during pre-production, he ensures Black Panther was naturally distinct from the rest of the Marvel universe with its formulaic, storytelling conventions. The research clearly shows and it’s in every single frame of the film.
Even when you take away the “black perspective” from the film, the narrative is still strong. Black Panther largely operates as a Shakespearian tale, infusing one-part Game of Thrones, one-part James Bond and the other part The Lion King. What you get in return is an extensive and immersive world building, part inspired by Blade Runner with Africa running through its core roots. Whatever your ultimate thoughts and feelings from the film, there is no denying that Wakanda (as depicted on the big screen) has more depth than Asgard from Thor or any of the galactic planets that featured in Guardians of the Galaxy.
But Black Panther goes a step further. With the growing level of toxic masculinity, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) might not steal every scene but he is surrounded by strong black women – his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and of course the Dora Milaje lead by Okoye (Danai Gurira). From an overall tone, this is a film not afraid of going down a progressive path. Voices are heard with every country in Africa represented in their own special way. This is a film that embraces strength and a fierceness where every character plays a vital role.
“I’ve waited my whole life for this. The world’s going to start over. I’MA BURN IT ALL!” – Erik Killmonger
There are several running themes within Black Panther. The first is tradition versus innovation. Wakanda is a progressive nation in terms of natural resources but it is also a nation that relies on itself with a ‘Wakanda First’ rhetoric. Characters such as Okoye are loyal to the uncolonized principles and traditions of her country and it is easy to see why. Wakanda is rich in vibranium in the same way that Nigeria is rich in oil and South Africa is rich in diamonds. Through empires, colonisation, political destabilisation and even slavery, Africa as a continent has been used for outside economic profits that has had zero benefits to the local people. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is that physical representation of that colonist cause. Wakanda and their refusal to meddle outside their own politics is to ensure their protection.
But when trouble is on your doorstep, how can a nation sit back and do nothing? Nakia becomes that representation of innovation. While the world may have forgotten about the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria (represented as kidnapped women in the film), she did not. Within the opening moments of the film it establishes her spy credentials, working undercover to free them until T’Challa / Black Panther steps in to finish the job and bring her home. It’s her outside perspective that provides a different outlook on how Wakanda could help serve the people.
Ed Power from the Irish Independent gave Black Panther a negative review which his opinion completely misses the point. Like most comic book superheroes in films such as Iron Man 3, Spider-Man Homecoming, Wonder Woman or even The Dark Knight Rises, it necessarily tackles who is that character behind the suit. What makes a great leader? This is not a film about how many bad guys T’Challa can beat up. Just like Captain America, we know that T’Challa is a super soldier but instead of a military experiment, his strength comes from a natural source – the heart-shaped herb. This is a film on how a leader is caught between the two dividing ideals and like a Nelson Mandela figure (even right down to his tone of voice), T’Challa has to understand those viewpoints in order to move the country forward and stamp his own legacy as King. Relating to the current divisions within communities and aspects of tribalism in our world today, Black Panther asks the question – how do we become the solution instead of the never-ending and repetitive problem?
This is a great thing about Black Panther. It has so many different encompassing viewpoints that there’s no simple right or wrong answer. It refuses to do a cut and paste job by telling the same clichéd tale of the good versus the bad. It manages to bring an emotional substance and education that speaks volumes. That substance comes in the form of black history, specifically cultural identity. Similar to Ava DuVernay’s brilliant Netflix documentary 13th, Black Panther not only stands up as a Hollywood blockbuster but conveys an adult and chronological context that touches upon the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and the current African-American plight, and of course slavery. This questioning exploration is explored beautifully through the character of Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan).
I’ve criticised Marvel films in the past for how their villains can be generic and simplistic. My general rule of thumb is simple – can you relate to them? Because that is what villains do. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them but their viewpoint of their world points out flaws in the system in which they feel requires a shift in the paradigm. Through their evolutionary mindset, they test and challenge our heroes on those principles. It worked brilliantly in Spider-Man Homecoming because Michael Keaton got the time to paint that picture and Michael B. Jordan similarly takes that to a new level in Black Panther. You can’t accuse Killmonger of being a simplistic villain. In fact, he is easily one of the best and most layered villain in the MCU.
Killmonger speaks a historical, social and political truth which is a surprise inclusion considering how in-depth it was and how it featured in a Disney/Marvel film! He tackles the rich and poor divide and the growing disconnection between the two. He becomes a symbol of history, turning back the clocks to 1992 Los Angeles, a turbulent time for race relations with the war on drugs, riots and even Rodney King. He tackles that enraged cycle of hate based on the atrocities within black communities, touching on the bonds of slavery and how millions were culturally displaced and rob of their heritage, dignity and real names. Considering the injustices, Black Panther even touches on the generational effect and how that affects children as they grow up within those systems. Killmonger, filled with that anger is a reflection of that society.
Black Panther actively compares the actions between T’Challa and Killmonger with a Professor X / Magneto vibe. Both characters have royal blood but as a product of their upbringing devises different outcomes. T’Challa has a nurturing support network of strong, influential women to help guide him with a patient nobility. Killmonger is an abandoned survivor after his father was murdered by King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) after accusations of stealing and selling vibranium for ulterior causes. He is the dark secret of Wakanda and refuses to let that continue. Their visions on the astral plane to see their ancestors further illustrates T’Challa’s deep-rooted and loving connection with his father and Erik’s almost non-emotional response at seeing his. His deep-rooted connection is the conditioned acceptance of reality that people die and that is the nature of the world. His mission in life is to start a new revolution.
There’s a noteworthy and paralleled activism between T’Challa and Erik. T’Challa is very much like a Martin Luther King in comparison to the amalgamated militancy of Killmonger’s Malcolm X, the Black Panther party and the emphasis of black power. The way both viewpoints are explored is through that integration of tradition versus innovation and the natural resource that Wakanda has. This essentially becomes the methodology by providing the tools to fight back against the oppressors using Wakandan weaponry.
You can evidently see how influential Erik’s proposal of fighting back can win hearts and minds. When T’Challa is offered an opportunity to capture and bring Klaue to justice and fails, his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) switches allegiances after Erik does the job that T’Challa could not. What bubbles underneath the surface is the brewing of a civil war. It echoes the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and the conflict of ideals between the principle of non-violence and taking action within a community that has been left frustrated in hope for change. Erik challenging for the throne of Wakanda becomes that extra incentive to prove his point on the world evolving and how Wakanda is morally out of touch by remaining an isolationist state.
With the use of Wakandan weaponry, Killmonger uses this as a way to enable the sufferers the power to a new future by re-writing the history books. It’s hard not to agree with him. When you think about moments in time such as the political marches in the 60s, the police were (and still are) armed like a small army as protesters were viciously beaten or murdered. His change aims to re-balance the equation.
But Black Panther is also quick to acknowledge that two wrongs don’t make a right. We can’t solve hatred with another wave of hatred. The tools that are often used for violence can be re-purposed for something beneficial that can empower people differently in order to break the cycle. When you think about it deeply and think of role models that have been suppressed or permanently silenced within the black community over the years, Black Panther uses the opportunity to find its voice for a new future. T’Challa as Black Panther provides an inspiration of a hero to look up to in the same vein that Spider-Man is a hero to New Yorkers or Superman is a symbol of hope. Even his sister is a confident representation of innovation and creativity by improving and re-inventing what has gone before. T’Challa knowing how history can play a negative part in someone’s future offers communities a chance to heal from their divisions and rebuild.
Black Panther is more than just some film and there is so much I could evaluate. It feels like a significant moment that I hope can continue. Just like the reaction with Wonder Woman, this is a positive stride forward for an industry that has been slow to recognise the value of inclusion, diversity and representation. This change is not just in front of the camera with a predominantly talented group of black actors. That diverse change is happening behind it too, be it directors such as Coogler, DuVernay or even Rachel Morrison, the cinematographer for Mudbound who shared her artistic vision for Black Panther and recently became the first female to be nominated for an Oscar in her category. That motivational inspiration is clearly there and you only have to look at how cinema goers have reacted. They have danced, celebrated, dressed up in their national attire and even gone as far as to pay and raise money for others less fortunate to come to and see this film. For a film that speaks of unity for “one tribe”, that is the positive message ringing loud and clear.
But most importantly in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther ranks as one of the best. Just like my personal favourite Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both films combine the fantasy of a comic book and provide substance to a real and complex world in which our heroes have to navigate. When a film hits all those relevant notes it can provide something unexpected and something special. This is one of those occasions and worthy of my highest recommendation.