Warning: * Spoilers Ahead*
At this point, it largely feels like the MCU formula is set in stone. A rotating cast of pithy white dudes take center stage, each offering a somewhat distinct twist on a familiar formula. Throwaway villains of the week appear with some menacing new plan at the end of the first act, only to be tidily defeated by the end of the story. Their motivations generally include some sort of global domination, representing simple caricatures of evil. Sometimes a lesson is thrown in, and there is some facade of character development, but often there is very little growth.
This isn’t to imply that there isn’t fun to be had. The detours into more somber territory with Winter Solider and Civil War are quite welcome, as are their ruminations on the shifting American identity from the Great Generation to modern times, as well as questions of government oversight vs. freedom. The pulpy roots of the Marvel universe are well explored through the stylishly directed Guardians films, and the ever charming Waititi’s recent Thor: Ragnarok. But overall, it’s hard to avoid a general sense of fatigue, as superhero movies have absorbed a great deal of the blockbuster market with largely similar outings.
For all of these reasons, Black Panther is a welcome breath of fresh air. Not only because it is the first film in the MCU being helmed by an African-American director and writing staff, but because the creators used their massive platform to convey ideas that feel like they need to be heard. There is more going on thematically in this film than almost all of the rest of the Marvel movies combined, weaving threads that deal with isolationism vs globalism, the shadow of western colonialism, reconciling traditionalism, and American world-policing. The characters embody these shifting viewpoints brilliantly, allowing these ideas to come to the forefront of this world in a natural way.
Our previously introduced protagonist T’Challa, played with charisma by Chadwick Boseman, stands as the fulcrum for these conflicting viewpoints. One the one hand he is obliged to forward the interests of his Utopian nation, but on the other hand he is pushed by the humanism of his ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), to use the vast wealth of Wakanda for the betterment of mankind. T’Challa’s witty sister Shuri(Letitia Wright), an engineer, finds it completely impossible to take the traditions of her nation seriously. This modern viewpoint underlines the conflicting halves of Wakanda, caught in flux between its technological grandeur, and the vestiges of its heritage. On the other side is the traditionalist Okoye(Danai Gurira), the Wakandan general who scoffs at wigs.
Through its opening scenes these issues are present, but largely exist on the backburner as T’Challa comes to grips with his new kingship, and chases his South African nemesis Ulysses Klaue. These early parts of the movie are propelled by the performances, as well as the arresting world design. This vision of Wakanda presents a vibrant take on Afrofuturism, the natural landscape of Africa seamlessly melding with the city’s technological grandeur to portray this dichotomy between the old and the new. However, it is with the arrival of the film’s true villain that the teased themes burst to the forefront.
Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Erik Killmonger is absolutely electric. Despite his mildly dumb name, Killmonger is the physical embodiment of the sins of western imperialism and American-borne racism. His radicalism is a somewhat logical response to a society so deeply steeped in prejudice and injustice. He knows the history of abuse towards the peoples of Africa, and it has twisted him into a bitter vehicle for vengeance. For once, we are given a Marvel villain whose motives are understandable, his unsavory actions packed by a consistent ideology and ethos. His techniques are borrowed from American history books, his skills learned from his days in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jordan steals the show through his swaggering performance, supplying a steady-dose of menace and well-articulated prose. His ethnocentric viewpoint manifests in his every action, teasing out T’Challa’s latent guilt over his own inaction. Like many of the best villains, he forces change in our protagonist by causing him to reconsider his viewpoints. Coogler’s empathy for the character comes to a head during Kilmonger’s trip to the ancestral plane. While T’Challa is still connected to his heritage, tethered to the very soil of Africa, Erik’s vision-quest places him in Oakland projects. He too, is tethered to his past, but it is a past rooted in struggle and hatred. His teary goodbye to his father turns into seething rage when he returns to reality, a representation of his inability to express his internal heartbreak in any form other than violence.
For once in a Marvel movie, it feels like the antagonist isn’t there just to force the main character to become physically stronger, but to cause an ideological change. T’Challa must face the truth of Wakanda’s previous negligence. The downsides of his country’s traditionalism burst to the forefront, as they arm a dangerous person with the tools to create a world war.
After being bested, confronting the truth about his father, and accepting the flaws of Wakanda’s past, T’Challa is finally able to fight back again the villain who plans to begin a war between the haves and have-nots. But when he finally lands the killing blow, we aren’t treated to a moment of triumph. Instead Killmonger’s dying breaths are a tragedy. T’Challa repeated his father’s act that disgusted him. Erik vocalizes his amazement that the fairy tale was real, and as he gazes at the view he’d dreamed of his whole life he delivers his poignant finals words. In response to our protagonist’s suggestion that he yields he says: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” It’s hard to imagine words that better encapsulate his actions, and it’s hard to imagine that these final words are a part of an ongoing universe that is mostly about people punching evil world-destroyers and aliens.
It undeniably has its problems. The action choreography mostly suffers from the pitfalls of many blockbusters in that it over-edits to the point of obfuscating the action. It takes too long to arrive at the real villain and conflict, even if much of the setup is an enjoyable time. But these complaints feel somewhat paltry compared to what is achieves. Black Panther is a triumphant showcase of Coogler’s skills as a storyteller, melding witty-one liners, a vibrant setting, a well-directed cast, and one of the most well-articulated villains to appear on screen.
Image Source: The Wrap