'Black Panther' Is Its Own Kind of Animal
Marvel Studios scores another major success, and taps the zeitgeist, by allowing Ryan Coogler free reign to make the most thoughtful, socially conscious superhero film to date.
Here we go again. Another superhero film. Another Marvel film, the first of seven set to be released this year. Another superhero origin film, where the hero grapples with his powers, his place in the world, his mission statement. Another CGI-heavy action epic, where the villain is a shadowy reflection of the hero, and the story leads to a massive battle at the climax. Yes, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is all of these things that we have seen many times before. But it checks all of these boxes exceptionally well. More importantly, the similarities to other comics superheroes films only serve to highlight all of the vital differences that Black Panther brings to the table.
There have been superhero films with African-American leads in the past (I have written an essay on each of the three Blade films for this very magazine in the past year), but never before has that lead been surrounded by an almost entirely black cast. Never before has a black superhero film been made on this scale. There have been strong female characters in major blockbusters before, but I cannot think of a major film with this many distinct female voices. Certainly none with this many strong women of colour dominating the cast. Superhero films have had social consciousness before, but it has always been decidedly secondary to the action and adventure. In Black Panther, meditations on the plight of people of African descent throughout the world, the struggles of leadership (both in a country and as a country) and the politics of isolation are right at the forefront.
Does this make Black Panther a little serious at times? Yes, but appropriately so. Does it make it dull? Not in the least. In fact, Black Panther is thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measures, adding a new dimension to the potentially stale superhero genre.
The film opens in Oakland, California in 1992. King T'Chaka of the African nation of Wakanda confronts N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), one of his spies in the outside world, about his actions. Upon seeing the plight and suffering of African-Americans first-hand, N'Jobu feels that Wakanda must use their highly advanced technology and their miraculous vibranium metal to help the world, rather than remain isolated and hidden. He plans to provide weapons to revolutionary groups around the world and provides information to crazed weapons dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, introduced in
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)), who leads a destructive raid on vibranium stores in Wakanda. T'Chaka condemns N'Jobu's actions.
In the present, T'Chaka is dead, killed by a bomb at a United Nations session in Vienna back in Captain America: Civil War. His son, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), already possesses the superhuman strength, speed and agility granted to Wakanda's greatest warrior through their mysterious heart-shaped herb (making him the current Black Panther), but now he is set to be crowned king. Much of the early film establishes the wonder of Wakanda before, during and after T'Challa is named king. Wakanda is a technologically advanced nation hidden deep in the heart of Africa. Their technology, powered by a mountain of vibranium, exceeds anything the world has yet seen, while African tribal traditions and aesthetic are still very visible and fully integrated into the society. Wakanda represents a dream of what Africa could have become had it been left to its own devices, untouched by European colonizers and slavers. It's also the most gorgeously comprehensive vision of Afrofuturism yet seen in a major film. It's mid-February, and we already have a strong contender for this year's best art direction, production design, and costume design.
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Once he is king, T'Challa must decide what kind of king he will be. Will he continue Wakanda's long history of isolation, or will he reveal its secrets to help the world? He has plenty of advisors, with plenty of opinions. Chief among them are Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of his all-female special forces unit, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), one of Wakanda's spies and his former lover, and Shuri (Letitia Wright), his younger sister and Wakanda's most brilliant engineer. Things grow complicated when Klaue resurfaces, and T'Challa feels compelled to finally bring him to justice for his nearly 30-year-old crimes against Wakanda. Klaue has allied himself with Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a highly-trained former American special forces soldier with hidden ties to Wakanda, and a strong opinion on how the country should be run. I'll leave things there for fear of spoiling the film, but truths are told, loyalties are tested, challenges are laid, and Black Panther tells a compelling, socially-conscious story with no easy answers.
That is the first thing that struck me about me about the film: the dramatic complexity. T'Challa is a fundamentally good man and is uncertain about his best course of action. He wants the best for his people, for his country, but his path is not easy or obvious to discern. For me, this is where the strength of Black Panther has always been in the comics. It is one thing for Spider-Man or Batman to unilaterally decide to act or not act as a superhero, as it only impacts them or their immediate sphere. It's a very different thing for a world leader, a head of state, who carries the weight of his nation on his shoulders. There are rarely any obvious rights or wrongs in international politics.
Black Panther makes that clear through its main villain, Killmonger, a man who is not necessarily wrong to push for Wakandan openness. On a more micro-scale, T'Challa and Killmonger's relationship hinges on sins of the past which have been visited upon them. T'Challa cannot speak for, or excuse, the actions of past leaders, but he will have to answer for them. This examination of politics and leadership ensures that Black Panther takes on a distinctly different flavour than other superhero films.
The second thing that struck me about Black Panther is the quality of the cast. It's full of magnetic performances, and there's no weak link in the entire film. Chadwick Boseman is rock-solid as T'Challa, conveying the steady regality of a king with a mostly stoic performance. Other characters might be more flashy, but Boseman shines as the calm center of the film. Speaking of flashy, Michael B. Jordan electrifies every scene he is in as Killmonger. The man is walking, talking, swaggering star power. Danai Gurira is my new favourite action star as Okoye, and she is matched by a solid performance from Lupita Nyong'o. But the real standout from T'Challa's trio of awesome female allies is Letitia Wright as Shuri. She shines with the exuberance of a geek, teenager, and genius all rolled into one.
Indeed, everyone makes the most of their roles, no matter the size. Angela Bassett embodies matriarchal authority as Ramonda, T'Challa's mother. Winston Duke is great fun as M'Baku, leader of the Jobari tribe, who have traditionally not appreciated Black Panther rule. I haven't even mentioned Forest Whitaker as Zuri, T'Challa's spiritual advisor, or Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya as T'Challa's close friend, or Sterling K. Brown as N'Jobu! Everyone gives it their all as if they understood the importance of the enterprise. Martin Freeman was the perfect choice for Everett Ross, an integral part of Black Panther lore from Christopher Priest's acclaimed run. He was established in Captain America: Civil War, but here he gets the chance to shine as the mildly overwhelmed token white ally in this film. Lastly, Andy Serkis is appropriately manic as Klaue.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the wide range of cinematic influences on display in
Black Panther. Most surprising and welcome was the James Bond-inspired South Korean section of the film. T'Challa (the "Bond") receives his mission to capture Klaue and stops by Shuri (the "Q")'s lab to get his assortment of gadgets for the mission. He then travels to an exotic country where he visits a casino (so Bond!) and runs into an old CIA friend, Everett Ross (the "Felix Leiter"), before a shootout and car chase ensues. It's a mini-Bond movie dropped right into the middle of a superhero film. There are more influences beyond Bond. The political intrigue of Wakanda has shades of Game of Thrones. The design and mythology of Wakanda draws from any number of science-fiction and fantasy sources. And of course, the superhero antics reference any number of past superhero films. But, once again, it is how the film combines and synthesizes these influences with Ryan Coogler's very specific worldview that makes Black Panther feel fresh and unique.
Coogler impressively refines his style in the film. Aided by director of photography Rachel Morrison, he completes his transition from the handheld cinéma vérité of his first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013), through the gritty but slightly more polished Creed (2015), to the classical epic sweep of Black Panther. There is the occasional stylistic flourish, like a vertigo-inducing 180-degree camera turn as Killmonger becomes particularly menacing, but it mostly looks like a standard Hollywood film. What sets it apart is the African aesthetic, such as the bright colours of their traditional outfits or the sun-soaked grassy fields outside of the advanced city center. The music follows suit. Composer, and frequent Coogler collaborator, Ludwig Göransson mostly plays the film straight with brassy, heroic music cues. But he often infuses the music with percussive African instrumentation and vocals that never let you forget the heart and soul of the film lie in Africa.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with
Iron Man (2008) ten years ago, and the first phase of its films (leading to 2012's The Avengers) were mostly traditional superhero films told very well. In their second phase, full of confidence after some massive successes, Marvel Studios began to take bold narrative steps (the corruption of SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014), and collaborate with quirkier filmmakers (Shane Black's Iron Man 3, 2013), James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014). These gambles paid off. Marvel Studios was lauded not just for making consistently high quality, successful entertainments, but also for not resting on their laurels and stagnating. Now in its third phase, Marvel has been pushing the envelope even further: The studio has capitalized on 12 films of backstory with its superhero brawl film Captain America: Civil War (2016), pushed visual boundaries with the kaleidoscopic Doctor Strange (2016), and welcomed Spider-Man back into the Marvel stable with the John Hughes-inspired Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). But if this period of Marvel Films will be remembered for anything, it will be Marvel Studios giving even freer reign to its quirky collaborators, allowing them to personally redefine what is a Marvel Film.
Last November, the studio unleashed Thor: Ragnarok, a wacky, colourful, unbelievably entertaining gem. For that film, Marvel tapped New Zealand independent filmmaker Taika Waititi, whose three previous films had made $13 million worldwide, gave him $200 million and the keys to the Thor franchise. Waititi had a passing interest in the previous two Thor films but seemed more interested in using them as a launching pad to transform the franchise into a trashy, screwball '80s film, and it worked remarkably well.
Black Panther is the next Marvel Studios film after Ragnarok, coming out less than three months later, and yet the two films could not be more different in their tone and approach. Despite that, they are the result of the same brilliant Marvel strategy. This time, Marvel handed the franchise to American filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed. Coogler gained a lot of well-deserved attention for Fruitvale Station (2013). The film, starring Black Panther villain Michael B. Jordan, told the true story of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was killed by a police officer in 2009. Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury and Audience Award at Sundance that year and made a splash at Cannes. Coogler teamed with Jordan again for Creed (2015), a continuation of the Rocky franchise that we never knew we needed. For his next trick, Coogler took on Black Panther, Marvel Studios' first solo black superhero film. Just as Waititi could not help but infuse Thor: Ragnarok with his very particular brand of humour, Coogler fills Black Panther with his brand of socio-political discourse, previously unseen in a superhero film. And the true marvel is that Marvel Studios is giving their filmmakers the largest possible stage to present their visions.
Endless articles have been written for the past few months about Black Panther being the right film at the right time. Much of that is intentional, but some of it is just good timing. Both are necessary to make a zeitgeist film, and that is precisely what Black Panther is shaping up to be.
Black Lives Matter has been organizing opposition to violence and systematic racism against black people all over the world for the past four years. In the United States, reports of unarmed black people falling victim to police violence have become so widespread that it has started to feel like white noise, which is horrifying. Coogler smartly includes these issues in the film by setting the opening in Southern California, right around the time LAPD officers were filmed beating Rodney King and the city erupted into riots over the officers' lack of punishment. This is the world that convinces N'Jobu to spread Wakanda's weapons and technology. This is the world in which Killmonger grows up. No wonder they both disagree so vehemently with Wakanda's isolationist stance. It would have been easy for Coogler to avoid these topics, setting the film in an African nation thousands of miles from the United States. But he did not want to avoid them. Instead, he engages fully.
It can also not be overstated just how important it is to see this level of black representation in a major blockbuster. I'm a white male. Growing up, loving movies, there was no shortage of representation for me. I could see myself in Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Marty McFly, Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, everywhere. I can only imagine the impact of seeing Black Panther, a film of this scale and quality, as a young black person. It's also so unique to see a country in Africa depicted so positively. Wakanda is flourishing, self-sufficient, proud, successful. At a time when that part of the world is referred to as a "shithole" by the current President of the United States, it's important to see some respect and optimism directed towards Africa.
But Wakanda is not perfect, of course. The nation survived with its culture, traditions and advancements intact partly because it isolated itself from the rest of the world. The world sees Wakanda as a primitive, third-world country, and many Wakandans like it that way. W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), whose tribe protects the border, advises T'Challa that refugees will bring all of their problems if Wakanda should open its borders. And thus, a streak of xenophobia underlies the country's greatness, and T'Challa must reckon with it. If the only way to protect Wakandan exceptionalism is turning a blind eye to the suffering of black people, is it worth it? Nakia has been a spy in the outside world, and she cannot imagine living in Wakanda unless T'Challa agrees to more openness.
Then there's Killmonger, a product of the outside world. He cares nothing for Wakanda's traditions or history. His interest in the country is purely pragmatic: The technology and vibranium can, in the right hands, tip the global balance and bring about a Wakanda-led new world order. Killmonger is one of Marvel Studios' best villains to date. He's sympathetic and, more importantly, he's not wrong. His methods may be extreme, but he makes an undeniable case that the strong countries, the advanced countries, must lead the world. That they have a moral imperative to ease the suffering of the world and stop focusing only on their internal protection. In a world of rising nationalism, of America First and Brexit, it's a point well made.
Black Panther does make the point that leaders are just humans, that they can be flawed and make mistakes. The struggles faced by T'Challa are largely not of his making, but he steps up and takes ownership of them. He cares deeply about his people. Killmonger, on the other hand, blames the past for his issues and chooses a more destructive path. He makes it clear that he's unfit for leadership because he only cares about himself and his self-proclaimed cause. Wakanda and its people are simply a means to an end. He stokes fear and violence to achieve his goals, whereas T'Challa ultimately earns respect and chooses to inspire. I certainly know which type of leader I prefer.
These issues were in the air when Coogler began making the film. What he could not have predicted, however, was the rise in the past several months of the #MeToo movement, #TimesUp, and other similar initiatives throughout the world. We have seen a long-overdue, very-welcome pushback against the treatment of women over the past few months. This started gaining widespread attention in Hollywood, and soon spread into all types of communities and workplaces. And just as this movement is gaining steam, here comes Black Panther, with some of the best female representation I have seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. Sure, T'Challa is the lead and Killmonger is the villain. But Okoye is identified as Wakanda's greatest warrior, and her all-female special forces unit is quite imposing. And Shuri is Wakanda's greatest mind. T'Challa's council consists of the leaders of Wakanda's tribes and other important groups. By my count, there were four women on the council, and two or three men. T'Challa surrounds himself with women, relies on women, listens to women, respects women. Coogler doesn't make a big show of this; it's just the way of things in Wakanda. This is not just an African utopia; it's a utopia of equal respect and representation. Thus, Coogler nails another social statement without even trying. Behind the camera is Rachel Morrison, who recently became the first woman ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Black Panther is an excellent and important film. It had one of the largest opening weekends of all time, which will propel Black Panther to the upper echelons of superhero entertainment. The Kendrick Lamar-produced soundtrack album debuted at number one and has cut several successful singles, making the film feel like the kind of old-school blockbuster that seems to permeate all corners of popular culture for months around its release. On the comics side of things, Marvel scored an enormous coup when it hired Ta-Nehisi Coates, respected journalist, and cultural writer, to write its ongoing Black Panther series two years ago. His run has been a smashing success and is touted for its highly intelligent, philosophical and political approach. I recommend that everyone who enjoys this film pick up the trade paperbacks of the complex, epic tale. And finally, the Marvel Studios machine continues to roll with its 19th film, Avengers: Infinity War, coming in early May. If the early trailers are to be believed, much of that film seems to take place in Wakanda, integrating their new superstar even more into the cinematic universe.
So here we go again? Not quite. Black Panther is its own animal. Something quite different, quite refreshing, and quite necessary in today's superhero-saturated market. Wakanda forever!