Black Panther is the Most Important, Most Political (and Politically Correct) Marvel Movie Yet
Black Panther is the most important Marvel film to date.
Creed director Ryan Coogler helms Marvel’s latest entry in the MCU, and it’s unlike anything that’s come before it. Picking up directly after the events in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to be crowned king after the untimely death of his father, the former king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and also former Black Panther.
Unlike other heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, the Black Panther mantle is generational and passed on from one king to the next. This sets the tone of the entire film and gives off a very Lion Kingesque vibe (including an evil, usurping family member), which isn’t altogether a bad thing. We’re all familiar with this story. T’Challa has to come into his own as a man, as superhero, and as king. As his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) wisely put it, “it is difficult for a good man to become a good king.”
Don’t we know it. In these times when we wistfully yearn for our clearly-not-super leaders to show some heroic qualities, T’Challa is the king we need.
Black Panther sets itself apart from all other Marvel films because it carries with it the weight of an entire race and culture. While there have been other African heroes on the big screen before—such as Blade or Hancock—none have put African culture at the forefront the way that Black Panther does. Indeed, more than any other superhero on the big or small screen, where Netflix’s Luke Cage and Black Lightning give an intimate, insightful glimpse into black culture in America, Black Panther is an unabashed celebration of African culture.
Wakanda, by necessity, is a proxy for the rich, diverse cultures of various African nations. In his coronation ceremony, different Wakandan tribes are represented, some displaying the marks of ritual scarification like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, others with lip plates like the Mursi of Ethiopia. Wakanda is a beautiful, science-fiction microcosm of Africa, a technologically advanced, culturally rich, egalitarian nation masquerading as one of the poorest countries on earth. Think of it as North Korea in reverse, with a free people who get excellent health care and efficient transport system, and a leader who is actually super cool and doesn’t want to wage war with anyone despite having the most powerful arsenal in the world. (Speaking of Korea, the mandatory car chase scene happens in South Korea, and Coogler takes as much care to show off its neon culture as he does Not-Africa AKA Wakanda.)
This is the crux of Black Panther. It needed to represent black culture in a way that hadn’t already been done in superhero films without alienating audiences of other ethnicities. Unlike other Marvel films, which are generally light (last year’s Thor: Ragnarok pushed the envelope in terms of tonal absurdity), Black Panther wants to be taken seriously. There’s levity and humor, but never out of place and only serves to build more character.
There’s so much at stake for a film like this, being representative of a culture that’s woefully underrepresented in mainstream cinema. But Black Panther handles it in spades, mostly because the idea of Wakanda as a technological utopia ruled by a benevolent ruler is something we deeply desire, regardless of our ethnicity.
T’Challa is so well-adjusted that he’s not only the ideal superhero, he’s the ideal person. He has a terrific relationship with his mother; he has the best younger sister anyone can ask for in Shuri (Letitia Wright), who also happens to be one of the brightest minds in the Marvel universe; he has an amazing, socially involved love interest in superspy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); and a badass bodyguard and right hand woman in Okoye (Danai Gurira), who leads the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite fighting force. Black Panther may be the star, but the women around him steal the show. There’s no shortage of strong, intelligent, and powerful women in this film.
Black Panther is practically everything most humans hope to be: filthy rich, ridiculously good-looking, unbelievably nice and well-mannered, well-educated, snazzily dressed, and with a support system unmatched by any other hero we’ve ever seen. Black Panther isn’t just one man fighting crime, it’s one nation trying to be the best humans they can be. By the time the credits roll you’ll find yourself wishing we all lived in Wakanda and our leaders were more like T’Challa.
In these times when we wistfully yearn for our clearly-not-super leaders to show some heroic qualities, T’Challa is the king we need.
Exactly what kind of problems would such a well-adjusted superhero have? Black Panther addresses the question head-on: how can a brother be so fine and live so well while leaving other brothers to suffer? Wakanda, with its rich stores of Vibranium, the most precious and powerful element on the planet, has afforded its citizens the best kind of life. Meanwhile, around the world, other people of African ethnicity struggle and sometimes suffer in oppressive social conditions.
What could potentially be an awkward conversation is handled deftly because the main antagonist Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) presents his argument quite convincingly. Despite having barely half a film with which to develop, he is easily one of the best and most complex villains in the MCU. Killmonger is not wrong, but his solution is exactly the kind of misguided philosophy we fall back upon when desperate and out of answers. In the first post-credits scene (which you should already expect if you watch Marvel films) T’Challa sagely advises us: “The wise man builds bridges, the foolish man builds barriers.”
Black Panther isn’t just one man fighting crime, it’s one nation trying to be the best humans they can be.
Black Panther is stunningly colorful and visually rich, incorporating so much of African culture into its design. Even the music is unmistakably African, with the chants and drums, as well as the use of Xhosa in important and illicit conversations. It’s sci-fi interwoven with ancient culture and tradition sprinkled with a little spirituality. More than any other Marvel superhero movie, Black Panther can stand wholly on its own. It’s comic book fiction, but Coogler has lovingly served us a sampler plate of African culture that leaves you wanting more.