The weight of expectations rests mightily on “Black Panther.” Not only does it need to be blockbuster entertainment befitting the Marvel Universe brand, it also needs to fulfill its apparent destiny as a cultural touchstone for African-Americans.
“Black Panther” is the first recent Marvel movie to boast a black superhero as a headliner, a nearly all-black cast, a black director, screenwriter, and cinematographer.
It remains to be seen how well it will do at the box office, but at least on artistic grounds, it meets its responsibilities with aplomb. It blends the razzle-dazzle of a comic book movie with a seriously Afro-centric storyline that nonetheless doesn’t feel exclusionary.
The clever premise of “Black Panther” is that a seemingly underdeveloped African country (Wakanda) is secretly the most technologically advanced nation in the world. Thanks to a centuries-old cosmic accident, Wakanda has sole access to the world’s most powerful metal, something called Vibranium. (You don’t get much more comic-booky than that, do you?) Rather than flaunt its power, Wakanda decides to hide it as a way to guarantee its safety. In the king’s reasoning, if word ever got out, all the nations of the world would be fighting over their vibranium.
“It could destroy the whole island. It is my duty to protect it.”
This unique strategy has served Wakanda well for generations but a challenge to this old order rises up from within Wakanda.
“I’ve waited my entire life for this. The world is going to start over. I’m going to burn it all.”
“What happens now determines what happens to the rest of the world.”
The battle between King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is the centerpiece of the movie, and is as much a battle of ideas as it is a physical contest. It’s a geopolitical argument dressed in superhero costumes. T’Challa’s isolationist approach versus Killmonger’s more interventionist stance. A strength of the movie is that, despite Killmonger’s villain status, his ideas have some validity. If Wakanda has all these capabilities, why not use them to help the oppressed, rather than keep a lid on them to safeguard Wakandans only?
Because of all the special effects and the action set pieces – the futuristic car chases and the near constant fight and/or battle scenes – this definitely feels like a Marvel movie. But its look does differentiate it from its predecessors. Not only is the cast mostly black, the film itself is steeped in African iconography, African customs, and African landscapes. I can only imagine how empowering it must be for many African-American moviegoers to see themselves portrayed as powerful national leaders, as charismatic revolutionaries, as the brainiest of scientists, and the wittiest, too. It reminds me of Gal Godot’s favorite anecdote about her role as Wonder Woman. After seeing her film, a boy reportedly announced that when he grew up he wanted to be a woman, so powerful was her portrayal. I can imagine a lot of boys and girls wanting to grow up to be black after seeing some of the role models in “Black Panther.” And speaking of role models, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another Marvel film that had more strong roles for women than “Black Panther.”
As good as so many of the Marvel movies have been, the entire Marvel Universe is in danger of becoming overly familiar. By broadening its cultural horizons, and by incorporating other ethnicities, Marvel may have found a bright new future … as long as it’s respectful rather than exploitative. If Marvel tries to act too much the colonial power, it will have the Black Panther himself to contend with.