Black Panther is a difficult film to write about. If I am candid, it is impossible to be objective about it emotionally, but that is what the very best films do. They find a way to violate the natural space between your emotions and a bunch of images projected onto a screen.
I think the key question for any artist that creates anything of meaning, is ‘why does this exist?’ It’s easy to make a movie where a guy in a costume punches a bunch of people and overcomes an obstacle, Warner Brothers has made quite a few of them by my count. But for people to remember what they saw once they left the theater, it has to mean something. Black Panther has more meaning than almost any other Marvel movie ever made. (Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is a very underrated and potent exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons, and Spiderman 2 was an incredible teenage drama.)
It’s an exceptional movie for three reasons: because of the current environment, because of it’s unique status, and because of the way it surpasses what a superhero film is supposed to be.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a very scary time in America for some people. The consensus opinion for minorities and many women is fear that the current administration is either indifferent to, or actively participating in aggressive white nationalism and thuggish patriarchy. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a low budget B movie about brain swapping is up for multiple Oscars because it captures this current environment of fear perfectly. Writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole address this issue superbly in Black Panther, clearly working the motif that petty rulers isolate, and great ones unite. Without being specific, it deftly handles everything that bothers all of us, black, white or other.
Black Panther is distinct, not just among comic movies, but in action/adventure films in general. There is a rather myopic idea that comic book movies are a recent boom, in fact, many of the articles I read worry about oversaturation of the genre. But comic book movies started with serial films all the way back to the 1930’s and some characters like Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, The Shadow, Buck Rogers, Captain Marvel, The Spider, Batman, Superman, and Brenda Starr all have varying degrees of relevance even now. Given so much history, it’s very difficult to make a film stand out, in fact for years, Marvel was dogged by criticism that all of its films were too similar.
But conceptually and visually, Director Ryan Coogler and Cinematographer Rachel Morrison created an Africa we’ve never seen before. Most movies don’t tend to have black leads, and few are set in Africa. Films that are set in Africa usually fixate on primitive tribal aspects, or some countries documented problems with poverty and violence. But Black Panther shows us the beauty of the natural landscape and horizon and then completely subverts it with an Afro-futurist Wakanda, technologically advanced, but still distinctive and colorful. The tribal conflicts are updated, and made compelling in a way they never were. I’ve heard it described as Shakespearean and I was reminded of the House of York and the House of Lancaster as I watched the various interactions.
Wakanda is a potent idea as well. African-Americans are a dispossessed people, with no records of family or ancestry because of slavery, they have no real homeland, after all, Africa is a continent, and not a homogeneous one. Black people cannot simply go back to Africa, as there are 54 countries there that compose it. Because of tribal conflicts, Africans sold others into slavery, and made no attempt to rescue or wage war on the nations that kidnapped its citizens. Centuries later, some African views Black Americans as inferior, because of their mixed heritage and troubles in social progress. Black Panther is the first mainstream movie that has ever understood and addressed those tensions. Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa is an isolationalist, as per tradition, but Michael B. Jordan’s electric performance as Erik Killmonger feeds into the emotional pain of most American blacks, and asks questions I’ve never seen before.
Why didn’t you help us? Where have you been?
Wakanda gives everyone a homeland, a place where everyone carries themselves with dignity, where they are given respect, where women are warriors and scientists, where art is integrated seamlessly with technology. Wakanda has used its natural resources wisely to propel itself to a world leading nation. It is everything that Africa could have been.
But none of this matters if this wasn’t a good film, and more than anything it is a good film. It is not just a superhero film, it surpasses the genre to be a great film period. It’s genuinely gripping and exciting with not a bad performance in the lot, while being effectively humorous at the right points. I believe that the last year marks the point when Marvel stopped making comic book movies and simply made movies.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that these might have been some of the most impressive reimaginings of comic book characters I’ve ever seen. When this movie was announced the idea that the villains would be Man-Ape, Eric Killmonger and Klaw it seemed extremely unimpressive, especially Marvel Studio’s long standing villain problem. And somehow they took these utterly improbable characters and made this work onscreen.
Black Panther is a must watch film. I cannot put it more plainly than that.