WORDS: TRE JOHNSON
Black Panther would have easily been a success if it had competently followed the superhero model that Marvel has popularized with its biggest movies, sticking to a formula that felt partially independent but very clearly tethered to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
The other entries couldn’t, or perhaps weren’t allowed to, resist the temptation to present “Easter eggs”—embedded details, hints and artifacts that tie a single movie to the grand comic book universe—or cameos that never let you forget that you are watching something that is ultimately a patch in a wider quilt. Over time you have come to even expect such winks and nods; seeing Chris Evans’ Captain America in a commercial for a Spider-Man movie or hearing a government operative warn about that “sorcerer” (Dr. Strange) or the many glimpses of Howard the Duck in Guardians of the Galaxy have all become standard fare in watching the MCU sew itself together. Yet Director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther eschews all of that, opting to go small and intimate in a way that feels more liberating than the large and aloof MCU films that end up ironically feeling claustrophobic. No, Black Panther instead becomes a story about movement, intimacy, and Blackness confined in the Afrofuturistic fictional nation of Wakanda. Finally arriving after beating the internet into a frenzy with its trailers, the movie still manages to be something far bigger and better than what we had been waiting for.
Black Panther opens swiftly with a history lesson on the fictional African nation of Wakanda’s tribal factions, the mantle of the Black Panther and the precious vibranium housed in its mountains, fueling the Black ingenuity and rarely stops moving. Whisking us to a low-rent apartment in Oakland that reveals itself more and more over time, to the lush, vibrant world of Wakanda, with stops in Korea and London too, the story roves without ever losing itself, remaining emotionally intimate to the very end.
Black Panther instead becomes a story about movement, intimacy, and Blackness confined in the Afrofuturistic fictional nation of Wakanda.
With its long-ruling leader King T’Chaka (John Kani) now dead, the fate of the throne falls upon the shoulders of his birthright, Boseman’s T’Challa. But the transition calls for tradition that includes an open invitation to compete for the throne and in the first of many scenes taking place in a lagoon-like arena suspended high into the mountains and slides into a waterfall. Throughout the movie we see T’Challa challenged here, and it’s these scenes and the context around them that gives the movie and its cast the film’s intimate feel. Bare-chested and resolute, warriors and would-be kings meet, the clashes feeling personal and consequential instead of the usual “end boss” feel of most peer flicks. Watching the challenges of M’Baku (Winston Duke) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) against T’Challa, each time presenting a different reason to doubt both the outcome and Black Panther’s claim to rule is evidence of Coogler’s aim to scale everything down to a message about the conflicts around legacy and tradition.
Not all of this happens perfectly. The action scenes still show signs of Coogler’s growth as a director, with some scenes shifting too abruptly and others hard to decipher at times and you might argue that some audiences, fed off the grander set pieces of crashing action scenes found in other superhero movies, might be put off by how claustrophobic and small the battles in Black Panther will feel. But there’s also moments of pure Black body celebration; even the cartoonish scenes of Black Panther flipping onto cars and racing along walls still feel like a cultural moment and the aforementioned arena scenes have an artistry at times that looks more like traditional dance instead of a brawl. The women get to take part in all of this too, as Black Panther makes great use of Okoye’s (Danai Gurira) skills as hair-flying, fearless combatant wedded whose own superpower might be her fealty to Wakanda and everything that it represents.
The film doesn’t give an easy out to this dilemma either as Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger represents Marvel’s best villain in the MCU.
This gets played out through the cast, again and again, meaning that the all-star assemblage is never wasted. From Nakia’s admonishment to Wakanda’s historical indifference to the reality of others and a hoarding of its wealth, to W’Kabi’s (Daniel Kaluuya) steadfast belief in upholding tradition and honor embedded in a personal vendetta for Klau (Andy Serkis), T’Challa finds himself straddling the duty of a nation and the diligence of his conscience. The film doesn’t give an easy out to this dilemma either as Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger represents Marvel’s best villain in the MCU; mirrored against the respectability of Wakanda and T’Challa, Killmonger’s agenda holds perhaps the most poignant argument that reflects the emerging voices in the black community around resistance and fighting back. “There are billions of us out there suffering” he reminds the Wakandan council, clawing at their slumbering consciences to see that Wakanda isn’t a strong nation not only if no one knows of its strength, but if that strength isn’t shared with the many black brothers and sisters suffering around the world. The movie arguably does a better job making a case for Killmonger’s worldview and claim to the throne than it does making a case for or deeply explaining T’Challa’s own, and Jordan’s performance probably sways more audience members than it’s intended to.
But that’s because Black Panther under Coogler’s direction isn’t content to be merely a superhero story that takes place in Africa. As always with Coogler, who tucked deeper narratives into pop culture artifacts via Creed, there’s much more here. The movie isn’t coy about the issues; raising everything from mass incarceration to Black wealth. Like Wakanda, framed for all its vibrancy and resilience, Oakland, shown in glimpses and dream-like sequences, is presented as not quite defeated but humbled in a way that Wakanda and its Black inhabitants haven’t ever been. While Oakland has meaning to Coogler as his hometown, it also stands in for virtually any urban city in America, where the Black strife, a story where society and forces that seem stronger than vibranium, are eating away at our existence every day.
As it moves from city to city, country to country, Black Panther at times moves across genres, too, with scenes and settings like the Korean casino and car chase sequence, the arctic climates and astral planes of Wakanda and the film’s final three-front battles echoing everything from James Bond, to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Yet Coogler’s direction doesn’t make these incidents feel cheap; if anything they serve as testimony as to why there’s never been a good reason that Black actors (or at least non-white male ones) couldn’t have always been occupying these roles. With a constant imagination on new settings and dangers to put T’Challa and company in, Black Panther reminds us that the biggest danger outside of this film has been the industry and society’s own lack of imagination.
The movie isn’t coy about the issues; raising everything from mass incarceration to Black wealth.
But what is imaginative is awe-inspiring, perhaps the best of it being Wakanda itself, which stands as its own rebuttal to many of cinema’s previous depictions of Africa. Flush against the backdrop of luscious trees, wildlife and huts is a thriving technological metropolis where everything from clothing to transportation is fueled by the precious vibranium and is created by nothing but Black people. Seeing Wakanda, protectively enshrouded by its own technology, is like seeing a mish-mash of Jack Kirby and Octavia Butler; a teched-out, geeked-out land where there is no want, no shortage of anything, and seemingly everyone within Wakandan rule proper, is thriving. This is all presided over by Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sister; the Wakandan technological marvel that moonlights as an upstart princess. It is her imagination that spurs much of what we marvel at in the nation.
Shuri’s presence along with Nakia, Okoye and the Dora Milaje would be enough to anchor a movie themselves. Each one three-dimensional, independent, powerful and resourceful. The movie never hinders them in favor of the male leads, and arguably they are the true heart of the film. They have defined roles but end up playing every position imaginable, from assassin, to spy, to caretaker, to lover, to strategist, to hero.
Black Panther can’t just be the bellwether of a new dawn for black superhero stories; it needs to live out its own myth as a mantle that gets passed on across periods.
And here’s where it gets tricky: holding this both for a moment and pondering about this movie’s legacy. A common sentiment is about how Black Panther will open doors to scores of other films and projects; that its impact will be measured in the other stories it helps to greenlight and spawn from its success. But the harder thing is two months, two years and two decades from now when the film is not only no longer in theaters or streaming on whatever survives the streaming wars—what will be the fate of the Black Panther? Panther can’t just be the bellwether of a new dawn for black superhero stories; it needs to live out its own myth as a mantle that gets passed on across periods. Chadwick Boseman can be the epitome of the role, but the Panther’s story can’t stop with him, and already at 40, it inevitably will at some point. The character needs to survive past him and even past the orchestration that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When it dies by way of Thanos or consumer apathy, T’Challa’s story must continue on, played over time and generations by multiple actors and steered by several directors. Or better yet, follow the comics lead: give the mantle to Shuri.
But we should want it to endure, and to not be satisfied with the act of creation that created memes and viewing parties while breaking box office records. We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to turn the Black Panther into American pop culture myth, inspiring a generational revisiting to Wakanda in the same ways we’ve seen our other pop culture icons.
Put more plainly, it needs to have a series of successors upholding the mask in the same fashion that we’ve seen happen with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and James Bond. It needs to endure, not just as an idea of a character, but as an ongoing pop culture legacy and phenomenon: passing the mask to a series of actors over time, over decades, re-emerging when the culture calls for it, calls for him. We have to invest in the Black Panther to be something bigger than this moment; a hard task in a culture that does a great build-up and climax but can rarely sustain our excitement for things. We don’t just need Wakanda right now, after all; we need it forever.