Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.

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