It’s Good to Be the King—Especially One With Superpowers
Characters created by Marvel Comics have spawned numerous superhero movies—more, even, than people may realize. Marvel Studios, the production arm of the entertainment powerhouse, has made so many, in fact, that they’ve felt the need to divide up the release of their Marvel Cinematic Universe films into phases. To date, audiences have seen three such groupings, of six movies each, for a total of eighteen. That all began in 2008 with the premiere of Iron Man, but it doesn’t even include the legion of features made earlier than that or by other production companies, such as Howard the Duck, way back in 1986; Blade and its two sequels; Bryan Singer’s X-Men and its nine follow-ups; Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man entries; Ben Affleck’s Daredevil; Ang Lee’s Hulk; three different The Punisher movies; Jennifer Garner’s Elektra; Tim Story’s two Fantastic Four flicks and Josh Trank’s reboot; Nicholas Cage’s two Ghost Rider films; and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man pair. On top of that, there have also been movies made from comic books published by Marvel imprints, including Barry Sonnenfeld’s three Men in Black features; Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Kick-Ass duo; and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and its sequel. In total, there have been more than fifty big-budget, live-action Marvel films, and in all of that entertainment content, the most recent release, Black Panther, marks the first effort to feature a lead superhero of color—and no, the green-skinned Hulk doesn’t count.
One might ask why that should be important. The answer is that, in a perfect world, it shouldn’t be—but in reality, it is. Imagine that you find a significant measure of enjoyment or satisfaction in a specific aspect of human life—you like playing baseball, or it fulfills you to practice the law at the highest levels, or you want to make a difference in America by serving in national public office. If you’re a terrific baseball player and want to earn a living in that capacity, but you also happen to be an African American, you wouldn’t have been permitted to play in the Major Leagues prior to Jackie Robinson crossing the color barrier in 1947. If you were a woman who wanted to argue a case before the Supreme Court, you wouldn’t have found a single example of such a person being allowed to do so prior to Belva Ann Lockwood in 1879. Similarly, no woman ever served in an elective Federal office until Jeannette Rankin in 1916, when she joined the House of Representatives from Montana—amazingly, before the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women in the United States the right to vote. And of course, no U.S. president was anything but white until Barack Obama’s victory in 2008—and we’re still waiting for the first American female head of state.
Now think about something far simpler: let’s say that you enjoy superhero movies. If you’re a white man, you’ve seen a long succession of film leads who look like you. If you’re a black man, or a woman of any hue, not so much. And when talking about a superhero of color, we’re also talking about a lead actor of color. Is all of that a big deal? If you happen to be on the white side of the ledger, it may not seem like it, but try to think about what it would mean to you if not a single superhero—or baseball player or attorney or president—represented who you are. That’s not just a personal problem, but a significant societal issue.
Enter Black Panther, which features not just an African American man as its lead, but a predominantly black cast, and one filled with strong, capable women. Just as important, the film does not make only a token effort at representation. Of the first fourteen credited actors in the cast, only two are white. The director, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), is African American, as is his cowriter, Joe Robert Cole (Amber Lake, television series American Crime Story).
Of course, none of that guarantees the quality of Black Panther, but it does suggest the importance of such an undertaking. A poorly produced film could have doomed future efforts to create mainstream works that feature considerable participation by non-white artists. Though it creates art—both good and bad—Hollywood moviemaking is a business, and a failure by Black Panther at the box office might easily have convinced studios to forget about crafting similar works. Marvel appears to have treated the film at least as well as its other superhero fare, providing it a budget of $200 million, engaging a critically acclaimed director, and choosing an all-star cast that includes two Academy Award winners (Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker) and two nominees (Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett).
So how has Black Panther fared so far? Through just its first seventeen days of distribution, the film has earned more than $501 million domestically and more than $396 million internationally, for a total of almost a billion dollars. Black Panther has set several box-office records. In less than three weeks, it has become the tenth highest-grossing film of all time in the United States, and the forty-seventh highest-grossing worldwide. That means that Black Panther is an unqualified business success, which bodes well for the continued representation of minorities in American blockbuster movies. But is the film any good?
Black Panther actually begins in a suspect place, with narration about the film’s primary setting in the fictional African nation of Wakanda. In a voice-over, a father tells his young son about how, long ago, a meteorite brought a strange and powerful metal, vibranium, to Earth. The metal affected a heart-shaped plant that, when ingested, generated superhuman abilities in the first Black Panther, who united four of the five local tribes to form Wakanda, then served as the new nation’s king. Vibranium allowed the country to advance technologically and to flourish, while masquerading as a third-world state in order to remain isolated from the rest of humanity and its propensity for violence and war.
Narration can be a dangerous technique to employ in a film, particularly in the service of explicit exposition. In the case of Black Panther, though, the relatively quick backstory lessens the need to tell an origin tale for the eponymous protagonist, freeing the plot to travel in a different and more satisfying direction than many superhero movie debuts. (Black Panther [Chadwick Boseman] did appear in Captain America: Civil War, but in a brief, secondary role.) More than that, the introductory voice-over accompanies a splendidly artistic rendering of Wakanda’s historical record. The film sustains that vibrant and beautiful production design throughout its length.
Black Panther drapes itself in a lush vision of afrofuturism. Even with the mix of advanced technology developed by the people of Wakanda, the visual and spiritual center of the film anchors itself in a distinctly African essence. The architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the warfare, even the rhythms and movements of the people feel modern while retaining historical influences. Contemporary skyscrapers come topped with thatched roofs. Clothing ranges from molded, bulletproof vibranium armor to traditional dashikis. A New Age, drug-induced dream state allows Black Panther to “visit” his dead father, but a Wakandan king’s ascent to the throne allows for a physical challenge to replace him. Action sequences feature sleek, cloaked airships firing energy weapons, as well as charging, armored rhinoceri. T’Challa—Black Panther’s given name—and his forces battle hand-to-hand with impressive, twenty-first–century martial skills, but his people’s ceremonial dances hark back to ancestral times. The juxtaposition of the new and the old lends an authenticity to the film that might otherwise have been a mere recapitulation of the superhero and science-fiction works that antedate it.
The film does not present Wakanda as a perfect society—one of its original five tribes, the Jabari, keeps itself separate from the others—but it does show a fundamentally peaceful people, in tune with nature, technology, and each other. It is a place that feels like home.
But while Black Panther spends most of its time in Wakanda, it does branch out to other locales, including Oakland, California and Busan, South Korea. Both settings adorn the production in different aesthetics. In particular, the scenes in East Asia—involving the illegal sale of purloined vibranium by villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and featuring an impressive car chase with both real and virtual vehicles—generate the feel of a James Bond movie (in a good way).
Chadwick Boseman portrays T’Challa with confidence and humility, with strength and grace. His manner and physical presence make his character eminently believable as the heir apparent to, and then the holder of, the Wakandan throne. He and his people face two malefactors during the course of the story, Ulysses Klaue and Erik Stevens, the latter known as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Andy Serkis inhabits the former with a smart but unhinged menace that perfectly sets up the dangers that Black Panther and the people of Wakanda must face. Michael B. Jordan gives a strong performance as Erik Stevens, an angry young man trying to overcome the wrongs he suffered in childhood.
As Nakia, a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s former love interest, Lupita Nyong’o brings intelligence and power to her character, along with a measure of gentility. Letitia Wright breathes lighthearted but potent life into Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and the head of technology for their country. Danai Gurira impresses as General Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, a regiment of formidable female soldiers who protect Wakanda. Both Angela Bassett, as Queen Ramonda, and Forest Whitaker, as the elder statesman Zuri, play their roles with their usual skill.
The story moves along at a spirited pace, building logically throughout, and returning again and again to Wakanda. The film is filled with recognizable Marvel hallmarks, from energetic action sequences to quiet, character-oriented scenes, from futuristic high tech to a breezy sense of humor. At the same time, director Ryan Coogler and cowriter Joe Robert Cole put their own collective stamp on the film, imparting an important subtext—and by the end, spoken text—that reflects the issues of racial and gender inequality that society faces today.
Black Panther’s themes are both powerful and empowering, although there are a couple of peculiar disconnects in the film. It feels right to see women in high political, military, and scientific positions in Wakanda, and so the nation’s patriarchal monarchy seems more than a little backward. When T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, dies, the son takes the throne, even though T’Challa’s mother still lives. The character of Erik Stevens eventually challenges T’Challa for the mantle of their country’s king, but while that confrontation is in part driven by personal animus, it is also based on political views. Killmonger, a lost son of Wakanda who arrives there to find advanced technology and powerful weaponry, abhors the national prerogative of isolationism; with millions of black people all over the globe neglected, impoverished, abused, and enslaved, he believes it a moral imperative to help them. Killmonger takes it to an extreme by attempting to distribute Wakanda’s powerful arsenal throughout the world, but he does have a point—so much so that, by the end of the story, T’Challa has come to believe that Wakanda must reach out to the world, that they do have an obligation to help their fellow man. It is therefore not precisely the villain’s goal—the raising of the downtrodden—that is at issue, but his methods. Killmonger is also noticeably the victim of his difficult childhood—orphaned at a young age and left on his own. He harbors resentment for his situation, and his anger builds. He ultimately joins the military, where he hones his martial abilities and takes a measure of satisfaction in killing, all of it in service to his aim of freeing people of African descent, wherever in the world they are oppressed. “I've waited my whole life for this,” Killmonger declares at one point. “The world’s going to start over. I’m’a burn it all!” He’s right, of course—equality should rule the day—but is the solution to tear it all down and start over? T’Challa thinks that there’s a better way, but it’s certainly not an easy question, and definitely one worth exploring.
The casting of Black Panther matters. A lot. In a country where black people were once forcibly imported as property, where they lived in bondage and were kept as slave labor, and where they continue to endure social injustice and racism, it is vital for art to expose and explore those ills, to provide opportunity, and to champion the cause of equality. It may seem silly to proclaim the importance of a superhero movie, but Ryan Coogler, his cast and crew, and the folks at Marvel have made it easy to do in this case. Despite its trappings of human beings with special powers, extraterrestrial metals with incredible properties, and a hidden and highly advanced African nation, Black Panther carries a significance that other such works do not. It also happens to be a very good film.
***⅝ (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III