Black Panther has the highest domestic gross of any superhero movie. Not just a solo movie, not just a Marvel movie, but any superhero movie. That’s a much bigger accomplishment when you consider that it was released in February, a time when studio executives think people don’t go to the movies. And with critical rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, to say this movie is anything but a runaway success would be insane. That success was for a good reason: it fulfilled a desperate need in cinema. The movie itself is a statement, but it’s fortified by its own message within the plot, tapping into issues that have been neglected in the popular discourse for too long. Although deeply intertwined, the twin pillars of plot and message worked together to elevate this movie to the level of cultural phenomenon. The only way I can process them is separately. So get comfortable, this is going to be a long one.
Black Panther is a movie about a prince who must take charge of his kingdom after the death of the king, and when a challenger to the throne arrives with secrets that threaten the integr...hey, wait a minute. This story may have the same broad strokes as Thor: Ragnarok, but the setting of Wakanda sets the tone and themes apart. Wakanda is an African nation, rich and technologically advanced due to a huge store of vibranium, the most precious substance on the planet. Historically, whenever valuable natural resources are found in an African country, that country is devastated as colonizers tear it apart to line their pockets, so Wakanda has used their technology to keep their true nature hidden behind the facade of a poor nation. That facade keeps the country in isolation, which echoes the isolation of the movie from the rest of the MCU, and both must settle their issues before they can join the larger stage. The country’s wealth allows it to provide its people with free education and healthcare, which contribute to the unparalleled unity we see that establish Wakanda as a literal utopia. In case you need further proof, Wakanda is also jaw droppingly gorgeous, but for the first time in the MCU that beauty is here on Earth, in a country that has a rich culture and history defined by its traditions. Those traditions and ceremonies have guided Wakanda to their immense wealth and prosperity and are so revered that they border on sacred. All traditions must be upheld, even the one that allows certain people to challenge the king for the throne in ritualistic combat. It’s that same tradition that designates the powers of the Black Panther, who gains superhuman strength and reflexes through an herb that developed due to exposure to vibranium, and augmented with incredible vibranium based technology. Since the Black Panther is a representation of Wakanda, you could almost say that Wakanda itself is the real superhero, making the reveal of Wakanda’s true nature in the end a clever adherence to the MCU’s “no secret identities” policy.
But the guy in the suit isn’t Wakanda, it’s T’Challa, the new king. As a superhero he is kind of the uber-avenger, with strength that rivals Captain America, technology that rivals Iron Man, powers that rival Thor, and agility that rivals Spider-Man. As a leader he is unsure of his purpose, and so he surrounds himself with the competing ideologies of different advisors, such as W’Kabi who wants to take their army into the world and fix all the problems but does not want any foreigners in Wakanda, and Nakia whose heart bleeds for the injustices in the world and thinks that Wakanda should use its wealth to help those who suffer. T’Challa’s perspective begins to come into focus when he learns that he has a lost cousin, Erik Killmonger, whose father, N’Jobu, was killed by T’Challa’s father when N’Jobu betrayed Wakanda by assisting in the theft of vibranium, then threatened the life of another Wakandan. Killmonger was abandoned in the US as a child, and fought his way through the world, picking up training from his time in the Navy SEALs so he could eventually take the throne of Wakanda. Due to a great performance by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger is compelling and charismatic, and when he cites the historical and continuous mistreatment of black people worldwide as his motivations, we believe him. He inherited those motivations from his father, N’Jobu, who was planning an armed revolution at the time of his death. N’Jobu’s views were tempered by the love he had for his home, and his wife and child, but Killmonger holds nothing in his heart but pain, obscured by hatred. He is a villain because he wants to use Wakandan technology to enable oppressed people all over the world to rise up, plunging the world into violence and chaos. T’Challa is forced to answer for for his father’s actions, and while both of them start off beholden to their paternal values, only T’Challa manages to grow out of them when he decides that Wakanda’s isolationist policies are wrong. Given that bringing Wakanda to the world stage was Killmonger’s goal, albeit through different methods, the fact that T’Challa ended up agreeing with him means that, in a way, Killmonger ended up winning. It even seems that T’Challa is trying to honor Killmonger by building the first ever Wakandan outreach center on the site where N’Jobu was killed.
This is the story of how Wakanda changed forever, perhaps changing the world forever. It is downright necessary that this movie be so serious, emulating the dignity of royalty to illustrate the magnitude of the stakes. It’s not just that this movie is light on jokes; the Cap movies often veer towards serious. It’s not just that the settings and visuals feel foreign; we have seen stories entirely on other planets. It’s not just that this movie is self contained and singularly focused; we have seen that more often than not. It’s all those things combined with a distinct identity and afrofuturist style that make this movie feel like the least “Marvel” of all the MCU. Like Thor: Ragnarok, this movie feels like the realization of the singular vision of director Ryan Coogler. The surface story is enjoyable, if not a tad simplistic and predictable, but it's also the sugar used to deliver the medicine. It doesn’t matter that the broad plotting is very similar to Thor: Ragnarok, or that it borrows the “hit the ground running” play from Spider-Man: Homecoming. The wealth of this movie is in the rich setting, themes, and most importantly content of what it has to say.
This movie is deeply black, both African and American. When you consider costume and set design, the predominantly black cast, and the music which is mostly composed of african tribal music and hip hop, that seems a bit obvious. But the deeper messaging of this movie is inherently tied to the black experience. From his first scene questioning the ownership of african artifacts in the British Museum, Killmonger makes a slew of very compelling arguments. His vantage point outside of Wakanda enables him to see all the suffering and injustice that led to his father’s acceptance of violence. The suffering Killmonger was subject to generates a sympathy that blurs the lines between hero and villain. For example, the movie opens with a father telling his child a story about the history of Wakanda, but who was the child listening to that story: T’Challa or Killmonger? Their competing viewpoints evoke the dichotomy between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as Killmonger’s thirst for blood reminds us of the militancy attached to Malcolm X. The humanitarianism of Dr. King is echoed in T’Challa’s decision to bring Martin Freeman’s character back to Wakanda to heal him, which risks the secrecy of Wakanda for the sake of one man’s life. Killmonger is devoid of that human decency as it’s shown he is willing to use any necessary means to accomplish his goal, even killing his woman when she gets in the way. Like most black people in the US, Killmonger was deprived of a meaningful connection to his heritage, but unlike most black people, the identity he created was one of pure hatred. Killmonger says he wants to liberate oppressed people, but the truth his actions speak is that he really just wants to kill oppressors. He wants to make the world pay for what it did to him, he wants blood and he will not compromise. In the end, he chooses death over compromise, saying “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
If nothing else, this movie supplants the primary image conjured by the phrase “Black Panther.” It could have left it at that, but instead the movie reaches back deliberately to connect to the Black Panther Party by setting the opening scene in Oakland, where the party was founded, and during the LA riots, a manifestation of the struggle of black people against oppression. Pepper in a few posters of Public Enemy and Huey Newton, and the connection is clear. The militancy of the Black Panther Party obviously connects directly to Killmonger, but that connection falls apart upon closer examination. The symbol of the black panther was chosen by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale because it is a creature of great strength, but will only attack if it is backed into a corner. The Black Panther Party For Self Defense (its original name) were committed socialists; everyone remembers their militancy, but few remember the free breakfast program, the employment training, the drug and alcohol treatment centers, and the free medical and dental clinics. When you consider the socialist programs of Wakanda, it becomes clear that the figure that best symbolizes the Black Panthers is T’Challa, whereas Killmonger best represents the public perception of the Black Panthers. His approach is so reckless and threatening that it connects to no real world analog: not Black Lives Matter, not the Black Panther Party, not the Nation of Islam. In fact, the intellectual divide between Dr. King and Malcolm X that we like to imagine was as wide as the Grand Canyon mostly comes down to this: Dr. King and the SCLC were strict adherents to non-violence; Malcolm X was not. They shared most of the same values, and the Nation of Islam was actually more involved in community improvement than the SCLC. Our collective need to believe in the binary of saintliness and villainy enables us to think of the Black Panther Party as violent revolutionaries when they were mostly a community outreach organization. It’s that same willingness that makes Killmonger seem more real than he is. He connects to pure hate, a way of thinking that everyone agrees is wrong. He is compelling because a lot of what he says reflects on the real world, but Killmonger himself is nothing but a fantasy.
So What, Then?
This is only Ryan Coogler’s third movie, after Fruitvale Station and Creed. Marvel must have known that he has something to say, and wanted him to say it. At this moment, Marvel’s reach arguably exceeds any other film franchise; they have the power to deliver a message that people will listen to. The message against government surveillance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is marshmallow fluff compared to what Black Panther has to say. Like Get Out, this is a movie of right now, touching on a variety of painfully relevant topics. Aside from its deeper social messages, it’s also one of the few depictions of African culture that isn’t deeply pessimistic. The fact that the flight into Wakanda reminded so many people of the Lion King just shows how badly we need new representation of Africa in cinema. Just like the inclusion of Rey in Star Wars makes that franchise more accessible for girls, T’Challa makes the MCU and cinema in general more accessible for a significantly neglected segment of the population. You don’t need to understand the messaging to enjoy this movie, but it enhances the viewing experience, like an easter egg for real life. The rich culture, the poignant visuals, the strong style, and firm identity make this movie a joy to behold. But the messaging is the reason this movie became a cultural phenomenon, why people who don’t go to the movies came out for this one. It says something we wanted to hear. This could be the very first important comic book movie. Even if the plot isn’t all that strong. 4/5
Coming up next: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)