“Black Panther” sets a new tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe
February 22, 2018
When being “king” is your day job, adding “superhero” to your resume just seems a little too good to be true. And, for our titular “Black Panther,” it almost was.
Picking up from 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is still reeling from his father’s death and the burden of his crown. He reigns over Wakanda—an isolationist nation rich in a supermetal called vibranium—while also assuming the Black Panther mantel. It’s not long before trouble brews in the form of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-soldier hellbent on challenging Wakanda’s traditions and its throne.
The film is thoroughly seeped in black culture, from it’s Afrofuturistic aesthetics to the synths and ebbs of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack. The amount of care given to creating the world of Wakanda—sleek weaponry, Afro-punk attire, tribal accents—gives it a multifaceted look that’s vibrantly different from previous Marvel flicks.
But “Black Panther” goes beyond hallow aesthetics. It is the rare superhero movie that knows exactly what it wants to say, even as its main character struggles with his purpose. Killmonger sparks this struggle when he presents T’Challa with a truth: the world— their brothers and sisters—are conquered as Wakanda hides itself and its resources away. While Killmonger represents revolutionary force, fully believing in the righteousness of his mission, T’Challa refuses to accept that helping others means becoming the conqueror.
It’s no surprise that director Ryan Coogler can bring these questions to life after spotlighting the way structural imbalances affect individuals with “Fruitvale Station.” Under him, the film shines with determination and meaning. He demonstrates a keen understanding of debts this movie owes to black history and black experiences—the Pan-African trauma of imperialism, the echoes of slavery and the empowered Black Panthers of Oakland, where several key scenes take place.
“Black Panther” is unabashedly political. Although a lot its jabs are for laughs (“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer,” one of the characters says to one of the two white characters featured), the main theme is one of isolationism versus intervention. Is it okay to come in guns blazing if you’re doing it to save people? It’s a question mirrored in the history of Africa, in the actions of America and purposely, glaringly absent from the fictional history of an untouched Wakanda.
Historically, Marvel’s had an issue creating villains that don’t immediately inspire amnesia when you step outside the movie theater (Seriously, Thanos who?).
Killmonger may initially seem like your run-of-themill, trigger-happy villain, but there’s something oddly compelling about his vision and his person.
Jordan’s charisma as an actor and the intimate rage explored in his character’s backstory makes audiences sympathize with him—maybe even dare to agree with him.
Oh, and the women reign supreme too. It may be T’Challa’s movie, but he is a passive participant compared to the strong women he constantly learns from as he envisions a future of unity and solidarity.
Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Okeye are different types of warriors, ready to inspire a generation of young Marvel fans with their dedication to their life missions. T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is a winsome cross between Bond’s Q and a Disney princess.
Here’s hoping for a sequel where she becomes the Black Panther, as in the comics.
“Black Panther” still slips into the same pitfalls as other Marvel staples. The action scenes are choppy, which is surprising since Coogler proved he has what it takes with the boxing sequences of “Creed.” The African accents were also questionable at times, but at least they weren’t offensive. And, as with the trainwreck chronology of “Spider Man: Homecoming,” don’t even bother trying to fit this film into the MCU timeline.
The second post-credits scene in particular does a lot to confuse exactly when this film takes place.
But the smaller scale of the film works. Besides an awkwardly shoehorned subplot about stopping the exportation of vibranium-infused weapons, “Black Panther” keeps its conflict squarely within the confines of Wakanda’s interest. It doesn’t need to be end of the world every time superheroes show up, just as long as the stakes are as personal as they are here.
Whether “Black Panther” succeeds in its ideological aspirations is up the individual. It may not do enough to push back on Western norms.
For others, it may attempt too much. But the triumph of “Black Panther” is in daring to be more than a superhero movie.
As the $404 million earnings show, the film is a reminder of why representation matters and why entertainment can shape a culture—and yeah, it’s great superhero movie too.
Contact Perla Luna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.