So I went to see that Black Panther movie.
As long-time readers may remember, this is not the norm for me. I won’t go into my full Kirby Rant ™ right now (if you want to read it, go here). But in short, I don’t like the way Marvel Comics treated Jack Kirby when he was alive, so I choose not to support their efforts at making millions of dollars off his work on the big screen. The whole thing makes me quite angry, to be honest. “Disgusted” wouldn’t be an inaccurate word (in fact, I can feel the bile rising just writing this). So why did I buy a ticket to this film? Because some things are more important than my personal vendettas.
But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.
by Joe Cole and Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman and Michael B Jordan
The Black Panther was created in 1965 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Making his first appearance in the pages of Fantastic Four, he was introduced as T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, a highly-advanced super-science kingdom in the heart of Africa. Over the years, the Panther has been developed as a character of great strength, great nobility, and a fair bit of guile. He’s possessed of great fighting prowess, backed up by advanced technology and a link to Wakanda’s tribal Panther God, which grants him enhanced physical abilities. He’s also pretty freaking cool, with an all-black outfit, featureless black face mask, and claws. I loved him so much when I was a kid that I spray-painted a Batman toy black, just so I could play Black Panther instead. And considering how much I love Batman, that’s really saying something.
Another big aspect of the Panther’s appeal is Wakanda itself. It’s an Afro-Futurist paradise, never colonized, conquered or compromised, never crushed beneath the boots of white men looking for riches or power. It’s a tribal culture older than Ancient Egypt, with nature-worshiping mysticism and sci-fi technology sitting side-by-side. It’s a compelling dichotomy, a strange mix of the ancient and the futuristic that appeals in part due to its absurdity. There have been all kinds of different takes on the Panther over the years, but the ones that put Wakanda front and center are usually the best. So it’s wise that the film makes the nation such a centerpiece.
Wakanda is as much the star of the film as the Black Panther himself. Maybe even moreso. It’s a good job of world-building, introducing and establishing an entire culture with as little leaden exposition as possible. I mean, there’s some. An opening historical montage establishes the four tribes that make up the nation, and the fifth that walked away. And Martin Freeman’s job (playing a CIA agent) seems to mostly involve him nodding his head while another character explains something. Anything else he does could have (and probably should have) been done by a member of the excellent Wakandan supporting cast.
But there’s precious little of that, honestly. They mostly explore Wakanda by showing us how it works. T’Challa gets a tour of his new adventure tech from his scientist sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), establishing Wakanda’s technological prowess. The ritual and trial by combat T’Challa undergoes to become king establish the culture’s mystical side, the conflicts it harbors within, and its underpinnings as a warrior nation. His sidekick Okoye (Danai Gurira) further demonstrates their martial prowess, at the same time establishing the equal role women have in their society (in its own matter-of-fact way, this film may be more feminist than Wonder Woman).
And so on, and so on, until we have the understanding necessary to follow the action of the third act without having to be prodded on why what’s happening is important. That should always be the goal of this kind of fantasy adventure fiction, and too much of it fails to deliver. Black Panther, however, handles it so deftly that it sometimes seems effortless.
Also effortless is the way it handles the business of the super hero genre. It does all the expected origin story stuff, giving T’Challa lessons to learn and obstacles to overcome as he proves himself worthy of the mantle of the Black Panther. It follows the formula, and parts of it are predictable because of it. But it’s done skillfully enough that the formula isn’t just laid out there naked. It’s wrapped in layers of plot and theme that dress it up – or maybe disguise it – just enough that you don’t feel like you’re being lead down a road that’s so familiar as to be boring.
And boring is the one thing Black Panther never is. It’s a constant stream of invention, action, and character, bolstered by a really impressive cast.
Chadwick Boseman is good as T’Challa, bringing a nice mix of bravery, integrity, and fortitude to the role. But because he’s the noble good guy type, he’s often upstaged by the women around him, who can afford to show a little more character. Shuri is an iconoclast who teases him in that easy way brothers and sisters often have. And Okoye is the fierce and loyal personal bodyguard who nevertheless has also served as a mentor to him. And between the two of them, they take the piss out of him just often enough to render T’Challa human, instead of just an icon. It’s a nice balance between some very charismatic actors. Their interactions are fun to watch.
And the movie is a lot of fun overall. There’s plenty of kinetic action in-between all the world-building. Lots of well-choreographed fight scenes, building up to full-scale battle in the third act. And, of course, there’s plenty of good super hero stuff, too. The Black Panther is thrilling to watch in action, leaping around with great agility and using his high-tech super-suit to good advantage in hand-to-hand combat. The Wakandan super-weapons are also a lot of fun. Shuri puts on a pair of sonic gloves in the climactic battle that are probably my favorite piece of tech in the entire film. It’s all well-imagined, well-crafted, and immensely entertaining. Big dumb fun of the type that super heroes – when handled properly – are so good at.
Of course, we also get that super hero movie thing I hate the most: multiple villains. Usually, that bogs a film down, giving it too much to do and not enough time to do it. But again, Black Panther handles it with aplomb. It’s got three villains, and all of them are given full story arcs that serve the master plot and come to satisfying conclusions. The first is M’Baku, head of a splinter tribe in Wakanda who worship the ape instead of the panther. In the comics, he was known as Man-Ape…
…but fortunately, they chose to use neither that name nor that costume. M’Baku challenges T’Challa for the throne in the first act, and later plays a key role in a plotline I won’t discuss here because I don’t want to spoil anything.
The second villain is Ulysses Klaw (played with manic intensity by Andy Serkis). Klaw stole some of the precious metal Vibranium from Wakanda over 20 years ago, and that incident shapes everything that happens in the present. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything. But it’s impressive how much Klaw’s story is tied into everything else, especially considering that the character himself plays as sort of an entertaining throw-away. Serkis is fantastic in the role, chewing scenery with wild abandon and really making me wish we’d gotten to see more of him. But he’s ultimately just a link in the chain that leads us to the film’s true villain.
That would be Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan, who is deceptively great in the role. Jordan looks like an innocent, and his character initially comes off as a junior partner to Klaw, inexperienced and not necessarily all that bright. That’s all a ruse, though, because Killmonger is actually the master villain, an accomplished American mercenary obsessed with vengeance on both a personal and cultural scale.
And that’s where Black Panther gets really interesting. Because Killmonger’s not just blood-thirsty, or greedy, or power hungry (though he is certainly all of those things). He is, in his own way, an idealist. A revolutionary, motivated by injustice. He sees black people, enslaved and beaten and downtrodden all over the world, and what he wants to do more than anything else is to give them the tools necessary to fight back against their oppressors. And Wakanda seems the ideal place to get them.
So he’s definitely a villain, but he speaks a lot of truth. Truth that cuts the Black Panther to his core. Wakanda has survived all these centuries by cutting itself off from the rest of the world. When the white people came to Africa, looting and kidnapping and stripping the land of its riches, Wakanda put up a wall and hid. Because, while they could easily fight off individual invaders, they couldn’t fight the world. So, faced with the choice of conquering or being conquered, they instead chose isolation. And they thrived while the rest of Africa suffered.
That’s a thornier dilemma than you usually get in a super hero flick. It’s also one with a bit more cultural weight than you might expect. But that’s what makes Black Panther as important a movie as it is.
Because, look. I’m a white dude. A cracker. A total honkey. But even I can see how much a film like this means to the black community. It’s a major super hero movie with a predominately black cast, steeped in black culture. It’s a powerful fantasy that doesn’t flinch when dealing with real issues. And it’s also a fun, well-made, crowd-pleasing tentpole blockbuster that gives kids a noble hero who’s still cool enough that they want to be him. I am not remotely capable of understanding the enormity of that. But it feels important to me. More important than my disgust.
And that’s why I bought the ticket.