Like Wonder Woman last year, Black Panther rises above its rejection of white male-led action tentpoles with good characters, clever writing, and a timely message.
First, let’s talk about the women. There are some serious badass ladies in this flick. Plural. There’s T’Challa’s ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his loyal general Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) and his tech-whiz sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Rather than make all three characters unstoppable and therefore uninteresting Vin Diesels with boobs, though they certainly all hold their own, the writers made each character vulnerable in their own way. In fact, you might say they are three-dimensional characters, unlike most females in action films. Hmm.
T’Challa himself, played with sensitivity by Chadwick Boseman, is a fine hero. He doesn’t seem to have a selfish bone in his body, but he’s still learning on the job. He’s far from invincible.
Besides the women, the real attraction here is the villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Perhaps the most sympathetic Marvel villain yet, Killmonger is dealt a bad deck as a child when his father is killed. Without positive role models in his life, he’s radicalized on the streets until the only way he knows how to restore “justice” is with violence. Should look familiar.
Despite the fictional location and futuristic technology, I would venture to say that the characters in Black Panther are the most human in the Marvel universe. Stab T’Challa and he bleeds. Okoye must balance duty to country with her loyalty to T’Challa. Nakia has a wildly different idea of how to serve her country. The most human of them all just might be the villain Killmonger, who mourns his father years after his death while inciting a plan to liberate the oppressed black population across the globe.
Ah yes, race. There’s a lot to chew on here for a movie about a king dressed as a cat. Wakanda’s self-imposed isolation to protect its wealth and resources instigates the moral quandary of the film: is it better to build bridges or build walls? Is Wakanda, with the means available all this time to help its beleaguered African brethren, its brother’s keeper? What happens when the privileged step into places of pain and offer a hand? The movie suggests that no answer will be easy, but one answer is right. Their policy of non-engagement with the world, in a roundabout way, results in Killmonger’s near victory in inciting rebellion across the globe. No matter how long you ignore the world’s problems, sooner or later they will catch up to you.
Peripherally, or perhaps not, some real thought went into the art direction in this movie, with designers looking at the clothing and architecture of African tribes for inspiration. Wakanda looks like something between Johannesburg and Asgard from the Thor trilogy, which makes sense; Wakanda is a proud, highly-advanced kingdom located somewhere in East Africa. The writers also ensured that Wakanda has a sense of place, with a fully-realized culture that, like the Thor films, gives the proceedings a sense of grandeur that eludes the more grounded of the Marvel entries.
The movie’s not perfect. As part origin story, part introduction to Wakanda, and part continuation of the Marvel universe, there’s a lot of ground to cover in the first 30 minutes. It feels like it takes a while to get going. The movie is a bit CGI-heavy for a non-Guardians of the Galaxy MCU film, especially the end battle. There are also a handful of lines that will raise some eyebrows. Shuri calls Everett Ross ‘colonizer’ and ‘another white boy.’ Killmonger delivers a line or two that, in some circles, will come off as heavy handed. In all honesty, I haven’t decided yet if I’m okay with all of these. They will take another viewing to contemplate. While on the surface it would be easy to take offense, it’s important to remember that there have been 17 Marvel movies before this one that don’t reflect an African point of view. Shoot, talking raccoons and mythological gods had a say before we got here. As far as I remember, each racial reference (and there really aren’t that many) contributes to the worldbuilding of the story. It’s okay if you think about a line more than once, and as a wise bumper sticker once told me, you don’t have to believe everything you think.
You really don’t need to think that hard about it, though. The movie isn’t only about race. It’s not only about pushing boundaries in cinema. It’s about reaching out to your neighbor who is in pain. I can’t think of a better message in February 2018, as America grapples with another deadly school shooting.
I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about how good Black Panther is. Maybe it’s not exactly your thing, maybe you’re a little unsure about it, or maybe you think it’s just capitalizing on “trendy” race issues. I’ve talked to people who have expressed all of these feelings, and I hear you. Now please hear me: it’s a great movie, and you should see it.
There are so many details in this movie. The details in the costuming, the world-building, and the staging are done with such care and intention. It makes for an amazing, immersive experience. Most of the details come in the form of characterization, and I love it. As Matthew said, there are so many strong characters, particularly women, and it’s refreshing. I’ve heard some people say that by making the peripheral characters so strong that T’Challa is made weaker or you care less about him. I disagree. I think by making all the other characters more independently significant, it makes him more realistic. The real world has a variety of opinions and perspectives, and a real leader has to react to that diversity. T’Challa is not untouched by his opponent the way most superheroes are. He is influenced by him the same way he is influenced by the ones he loves. By giving all the characters such detailed stories, the quality of the movie overall is lifted.
The second thing I love about this movie is its boldness. It would be easy for a studio like Marvel to go for the “safe” option. However, not only do they choose some risky material, they also consistently choose interesting directors to trust with the material. Ryan Coogler was a bold choice for this movie given his limited yet explosive list of credits, but he and the writers had something to say and Marvel gave them the freedom to say it. Sure, there are some lines that might make you uncomfortable, but that’s okay. It’s good to give the audience something unexpected to think about later on. I won’t ruin anything, but Killmonger’s last line is one of my favorite lines in the movie for its incredible audacity. It’s rare for such a mainstream movie to have the balls Black Panther does, and that should be celebrated.
In case you haven’t noticed, Hollywood really doesn’t like to take risks. That’s why we are all exclaiming “They’re remaking that movie already?!” or “Do we really need another one of those?” every year because remakes and sequels are the most risk-free ways for Hollywood to make lots of money. In my lifetime, though, I’ve gotten to witness a few movies that have challenged this status quo. Movies that a studio executive probably looked at and said, “I’m not giving money to make that, no one will come to see it.” Bridesmaids, for example. Traditionally, people don’t pay a lot of money for female-driven comedies. Then the audiences showed up in the form of over $280 million because it was hilarious. I believe Black Panther is going to do the same thing. It’s already made a lot of money and I think it’s going to expand the realm of possibilities. Think of it as a, “if you build it, he will come” theory. If you make a great movie, the audience will come. People are not just seeing this movie because it’s full of black people (that’s certainly significant, but not the only reason). They’re seeing it because it’s really, really good.