Black Panther feels as much like a moment as it does a movie. There has been something transformative about the response to what, in another time and place, might have just ended up as another Marvel movie. It’s yet again proof that Marvel are expanding their reach, upping their game, and doubling their odds.
Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adapting the successful if not widely known outside comic-book circles story of King T’Challa of Wakanda, is the second picture in a row from the comics studio, after Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, to feel like the true work of an auteur filmmaker. This has been a balance Kevin Feige’s game-changing franchise has previously struggled with since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man changed the course of blockbuster cinema in 2008; you only have to point to the wreckage of films such as The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World as good examples of how it took Marvel a while to truly embrace a filmmaker’s singular vision alongside the beats and overarching universal frameworks Marvel have spent a decade building toward, which will reach a conclusion with Avengers: Infinity War this year and its untitled 2019 sequel.
Could it be that the reason both Thor: Ragnarok and now Black Panther are such strong entities within the Marvel family is precisely because they didn’t have to particularly fit that framework? That’s a strong possibility. All Waititi had to do was position Thor in a space whereby he could be slotted back into Infinity War – beyond that he had carte blanche to re-imagine the world of Asgard as a neon, Guardians of the Galaxy-esque, 1980’s retro-futuristic blend of mythology and Antipodean eccentricity, and for the most part it worked beautifully.
Coogler has perhaps even greater freedom with Black Panther, allowed as he is to truly develop the internal mythology and world of Wakanda around what isn’t a traditional origin story for T’Challa, given his previous introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but something deeper: a liberal-minded tale of colonial rejection, imperialist globalisation, and the haunting embers of black persecution.
Black Panther strikes a chord because it’s yet another potent example of how Hollywood, filled with liberal creatives inside a Californian world closed off, not unlike Wakanda to the world, from the apparent nationalist degradation of many other parts of America, are striking back with motion pictures which expressly feel like a retort against the divisions that are threatening Western democracy.
There has been an alt-right response in the unfortunate trolling by white nationalists posting on social media faked examples of how white people are being attacked by black crowds at screenings of the movie, but it’s not a response truly equal to what they see as a threat: a film which actively promotes not only the sustained idea of war-like colonialist American foreign policy but also that Africa, the cradle of civilisation, has always held the wisdom and knowledge that could unite humanity – they simply haven’t been ready to share it.
These feel like ideals that come from a very personal place for a filmmaker such as Coogler, who develops with Wakanda one of the most fascinating, vibrant (appropriate given their Vibranium) cultures the Marvel universe has yet given us. Their world is richer and more human than that of Asgard, less awkwardly psychedelic and mystical than the dimensions explored by the Sorcerer Supreme, and more defined than the deep space galactic Star Wars-style universe from the Guardians side of things.
Wakanda truly does feel like El Dorado (a real life legend mentioned by secondary villain Ulysses Klaue in dialogue at one point); a lost city which holds not in this case treasure but technology, adapted from an ancient alien source, which can power anti-gravity ships, powerful energy weapons, or deliver regenerative medical resources to heal wounds and stave off death. In many respects, Wakanda is a magical land, an Oz hidden behind the curtain.
Where it differs, and what grounds it and the story of Black Panther, is that there is no wizard pulling the strings or God-like equivalent ruler, but rather a man in the King, the symbolic Black Panther gifted of superhuman abilities according to the mythological origin legends passed down orally from one generation to the next, but a man nonetheless. T’Challa, played with engaging dignity by Chadwick Boseman, is one of the more noble and straight-laced characters the MCU has given us, but he’s equally one of the most inspiring; a man who believes in his duty to protect his people, to honour the traditions of his forefathers, but who is willing to adapt to a changing world, the world which led to the death of his father T’Chaka by a terrorist act (as we saw in Civil War), but a world T’Challa isn’t prepared to punish, but rather to help save.
This is why Michael B. Jordan’s vicious, urban Killmonger (aka former American soldier Eric Stevens) works so well in opposition and contradiction to T’Challa. A lesser Black Panther adaptation would have positioned Klaue, well-known as a villain in the comic-book series, as the primary antagonist, but Coogler is smart enough to recognise Andy Serkis’ enjoyably OTT performance as the exuberant international terrorist as the equivalent of a cheesy James Bond villain (indeed a chunk of the first half plays like a classic 007 movie), and in this context works as a functional semi-antagonist. Killmonger not only provides the emotional and spiritual central challenge of the picture, given his role as a sundered child Prince looking to reclaim his heritage, but he operates in a fascinating sociological context: a black man as the face of American colonial imperialism.
Killmonger’s rationale isn’t even a campaign trail in Wakanda. His motives are functionally to inspire the kind of revolution his black forebears in America and beyond never had the opportunity to take for themselves, but his reality is in placing himself as the ruler of the same kind of dictatorial power struggle he believes his race were robbed of by the ebb and flow of history.
In believing himself the liberator, Killmonger typifies everything he stands against, and therein lies his beautiful contradiction – one fuelled more by a personal loss and desire to avenge what he himself never had: the father figure who helped shape T’Challa into the man he is today. The irony is that T’Challa here discovers T’Chaka himself was not without his own flaws, having mistakenly chosen to bury the past in trying to protect Wakanda and his people. T’Chaka’s secrets end up almost destroying Wakandan civilisation, and it forces T’Challa to think in a different way.
Black Panther therefore is not a film about the plight of the black race across the democratic world, but rather the power they hold as part of a unified human, global society. That’s the message Coogler promotes through T’Challa and the choices made by Wakanda once the struggle they face here is over, and it fits with the broader idea of the Marvel universe. This is a world where the disparate amount of heroes, many of them with deep shades of grey and red on their ledgers by now, must figure out a way to unite in order to defeat the threat of Thanos which is looming on the horizon.
T’Challa is positioned by the end of this picture as the noble, sincere equivalent of Tony Stark, before he became corrupted by his own ego, and would serve as a strong candidate to lead any future Avengers lineup. He could be a crucial part of the next overarching phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Along the way, you sense there won’t be too many Black Panther’s. It feels defiantly standalone, despite certain character and story tethers to Civil War specifically. Coogler directs with the same kinetic verve he brought to Creed, teasing strong performances out of a rich, diverse cast from half a dozen nations, while Ludwig Goransson’s score adds an ethnic, layered texture of African musical notes alongside a grand, mythological scope. There is a style and confidence all its own about Black Panther, even at the points the tone and narrative splutter (which they do occasionally), and ultimately there is a predictability about where the final confrontation is going. None of that detracts from the power and elegance, nevertheless, of the logical story being told.
Honestly, though given its critical reception and strong box office there will almost certainly be one, Black Panther doesn’t need a sequel. As a story about the emergence of an advanced civilisation choosing to reject colonialism and emerge as a force to unite a fractured world, it feels told. Perhaps the reason to see T’Challa and Wakanda again, beyond the Avengers unified team-ups, is to remind us that we can still strive, Star Trek-style, for a better world. Hollywood keeps repeating the message, but we need to keep being told.
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Ryan Coogler
WRITERS: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
CAST: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita N’yon’go, Daniel Kaluyya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis
STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: Marvel Studios