A child’s question to his father launches Black Panther’s narrative. Why? The father is attempting to educate his son (and the audience) about their people and the wonders they possess secreted away from the eye of the world. Wakanda, the unconquerable nation, is a technological paradise. They have reached beyond others because of their nearly endless access to Vibranium, a precious metal that makes titanium look as brittle as glass. While others rot away through greed, famine, and war, the Wakandans flourish. The son does not understand. Why must they hide? Why not share their gifts? The question will torment and torture everything that proceeds afterwards.
If you’ve been living under a rock, you might have missed the cultural revolution happening around Marvel Studios’ latest superhero blockbuster. Representation matters. Those that don’t understand that idea are the ones who have had pop culture fed to them since birth. Director Ryan Coogler is a self-described geek who grew up in Oakland obsessing over Marvel titans like Captain America and Spider-Man. He loved them. But he also searched for an idol who looked like himself. A comic book clerk eventually put an issue of Black Panther in his hand. It was a revelatory experience.
Black Panther is a king. The ruler of Waknada. He fights to protect his people, a selfless guardian who must weigh every personal decision against the will of his subjects. Through consumption of the heart-shaped herb, the Black Panther acquires super-human strength and agility. The Vibranium harvested by Wakandans is sewed into his suit, melded into his vehicles, and powers his weapons. He’s a descendent of a long line of warriors blessed by the panther goddess, Bast. It’s a fairy tale any Oakland kid would fall for; Black Panther is a champion of the people.
While black action icons and superheroes have existed before, none have been given the multi-million-dollar treatment like Black Panther. Coogler’s film is simply stunning, and he achieves its beauty by assembling a crew of masters. With the aid of cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who was recently nominated for her work on Mudbound), costume designer Ruth E. Cater, production designer Hannah Beachler, and composer Ludwig Goransson, Black Panther is a visionary production celebrating African culture with as little western influence as possible. The end result drastically separates the film from the rest of the Marvel brand. This is a feast that demands return trips to soak it all in.
The current Black Panther bouncing around the MCU is King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). As you may or may not have seen in Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa’s father was slain during a terrorist attack upon the United Nations. While he has spent a lifetime learning how to be king, T’Challa is not ready to deal with the tremendous emotional loss. He’s even less prepared to discover the sins his father has committed in the name of Wakanda.
Here is a nation that lives in constant fear of the outside world, but it masks that fear of the other with a disgust for the global atrocities they observe from on high. To keep their wonderland hidden, every King before T’Challa has fought to guard their secrets. They’ve implanted spies in every country, hunted their criminals to extinction, and most importantly, ignored the pleas of the terrorized. It’s an insular and inevitably disastrous path that T’Challa probably would have continued down if not for the phenomenal cast of women that surrounds him.
In one of the film’s early set-pieces, T’Challa “rescues” his ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from a caravan of slave traders. Nakia has no interest in staying concealed. Her calling has pulled her away from her borders, determined to help the unfortunate. She’s the angel on T’Challa’s shoulder imploring her king to use his might to aid the cause.
The devil on his shoulders in General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of Wakanda’s all-female soldier force, the Dora Milaje. Her mission is to safeguard her king, and in doing so, shield her homeland. A supreme badass who has the best moves in the film. Watching her obliterate opponents in a South Korean gambling den might be the defining thrill of 2018. For Okoye, the idea of interacting with the outside world is more than distasteful, it’s blasphemous. She will need some convincing.
That persuasion comes in the form of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a U.S. special-ops assassin with a dark connection to one of Wakanda’s past sins. Like T’Challa, he has been preparing for his moment since childhood. He wants the throne, and he mysteriously has the cultural knowledge to make that happen. He’s sickened by how this utopia has severed itself from rest of the planet. How dare they thrive while their African brothers and sisters are brutalized by a hateful society? They don’t deserve their wonders.
Black Panther has all the tropes you’ve come to crave from the superhero genre, elevated by a passionate vision and an understandable rage. Killmonger is a monster of our own making, and at times, he’s easy to root for. Casting Jordan is 90% of the success. He has so much charisma and diabolical charm, I dare you not to swoon under his zealous anger. And looking at the world around us, the idealism championed by Nakia and absorbed by T’Challa plays painfully naïve. How do we get out of this mess?
Coogler is ultimately combatting our illusions of division. It’s a beautiful sentiment that Americans once prided themselves in advocating. Do we still think we have something to offer? Do we even want to? If you walk out of Black Panther looking to purchase a “Killmonger Was Right” t-shirt then you’re already prepping for the apocalypse. Survival of the fittest, protect me and mine. T’Challa’s “one tribe” dream is a fairy tale. Do we still have room for those?
Whatever your answer, Black Panther delivers a pulp adventure steeped in a rich sense of place and people often ignored by popular entertainment. Every stunning design reveal exposes how deprived of experience we have been. You can enjoy it as a simple link in the chain of Marvel’s never-ending franchise, but don’t rob yourself of the questions it asks. Why? Comic book cinema has never been more relevant or powerful.