dir: Ryan Coogler
That was incredible.
The Marvel movies have been a long and torturous rollercoaster ride for so long, but finally it’s delivered a strong film that could work almost perfectly fine outside of the Marvel milieu. I almost wish it didn’t have to dovetail into the broader franchise, because it’s something so special on its own.
Another thing – I will not miss Stan Lee’s cameos when he inevitably dies soon. I mean he’s in his 90s already, and that hairpiece seems like it’s starting to take over his entire head, and I don’t wish anyone ill, least of all a carnival barker of his longevity and shamelessness, but, honestly, come on.
There’s something so enjoyable about the creation of Wakanda. It’s not unique or original in the field of science fiction or comic books, but the very idea of a place hidden in plain sight in the middle of Africa that escapes the historical deprivations of slaughter, slavery and resource theft (and their contemporary repercussions) is appealing for a whole number of reasons. The absolute *greatest* thing about it is what they *don’t* do with it.
I am absolutely positive that there would have been some Marvel exec trying to argue that the “best” way to tell this story would “well, actually” be from the perspective of a white guy who stumbles across this technological Shangri-La – Xanadu – Brigadoon – or whatever the hell the magical Kathmandu place was called in Doctor Strange. Then the guy, treated with suspicion at first by the locals, eventually saves them and is treated like a god.
We’ve seen it many times before. Thank Christ – Loki – Satan that they didn’t go down this path. No, Wakanda is the point of the whole movie, both its isolation and the role it could potentially play in the world (like, the whole fictional Marvel world), for good or ill.
With no disrespect at all to Chadwick Boseman, who’s great here just as he was in Captain America: Civil War, it’s almost like this flick called Black Panther doesn’t really need the Black Panther in it that much. There is so much going on, and so many other interesting characters, that the Black Panther itself only becomes a symbol of what Wakanda should do with its place in the world.
T’Challa, the former prince of Wakanda is now king upon his father’s death in Civil War at the hands of – I dunno – some guy with a German accent, sorry, Sokovian accent. But in the technological wonderland that is Wakanda, despite the fact that they have made incredible technological advances and created an amazing city-state where there is no want or deprivation, and every gets to wear whatever funky African fashions they so choose, they still persist with a pointlessly anachronistic adherence to feudalism and divine right, being the idea that Wakanda should be ruled by a hereditary king.
Like, what bullshit. And I don’t just mean for any of the obvious reasons. The film itself gives us at least 13 Reasons Why this notion of masculine privilege is nonsense, not least of which being that T’Challa is surrounded by and entirely carried by a legion of mostly extraordinary women who nonetheless do everything they can to prop up his failing regime.
First among equals is the fearsome Okoye (Danai Gurira, best known for playing Michonne in The Walking Dead) whose loyalty to the king of Wakanda is so extreme that she’ll sacrifice herself and her own partner if it comes to it, in order to defend him. Just to elaborate just a tad more, she is so extreme in her support of whoever the king of Wakanda is, that she isn’t specifically loyal to T’Challa, but to whomever is on the throne. Wakanda Forever above everything.
She is most often just referred to as “General”, not as in “in general I find her to be terrifying and awesome” but as in the military leader. She leads the Dora Milaje, equally fearsome women who protect the king, erm, most of the time. No, not to be unfair, they do a staggering job, and look amazing doing it, but the plot needs them to fail every now and then to up the stakes.
Okoye *owns* outright entire sections of this fantastic film, like, whole slabs of it. One of the action setpieces, set in Busan, South Korea, is hurt beating the bejesus out of people, property and cars just with her ferocity, an amazing spear and pure determination. The Black Panther is around, no doubt, but he’s like “Oh, okay, well, I guess you’ve got this, I’ll just be over here, waiting, until you need me for something…”
That’s not quite right, but it sure feels like it at certain points. Okoye is consistently great throughout, but never one-note in her portrayal. The story complicates itself in order to give her difficult situations to navigate, but never, at any stage, are we allowed to have any room to doubt that she will do the right thing for Wakanda and the legion of women supporting her.
Okay, so one great female character and portrayal doesn’t necessarily shatter any or all of the glass ceilings. Well, then there’s the just as impressive and damn funny sister of the king, Shuri (Leticia Wright) who develops all the tech playthings that Wakanda gets to enjoy. I mean, I’m sure she’s not the only prominent scientist in Wakanda, but we don’t get to meet the rest of them.
We only get to meet the supernaturally bright Shuri, who is a total smartarse, and a delightful presence in the film. She mocks T’Challa with just the right amount of sass, to ensure all this talk of divine right and being chosen by a god to run things doesn’t give him delusions of grandeur.
Well, not too many delusions of grandeur, since he’s still like a chosen superbeing or something. I’m not across the specifics of it, but we’re meant to think there’s got to be something special about him if a whole supertech nation falls into line behind him, because why else?
Despite the adherence to hereditary rule, there is an opportunity for people to challenge him for the right to be king, at least in the first instance, on the day where T’Challa is meant to be crowned, just after his father’s death. On this day, other entitled princelings, either crown princes or heads of the other tribes, can also challenge to be king / Black Panther / Pope of Wakanda. So it’s trial by combat AND feudal chauvinist privilege, which, let’s be honest, amounts to the same thing. Whoever wins gets to claim that god (in this case the Egyptian cat goddess Bast – I’m not making this up) is on their side, and clearly not on the loser’s side, because gods love a winner, presumably.
The guy who challenges T’Challa the first time loses, despite being a big beefy bastard (Winston Duke), so we are meant to think everything’s fine, T’Challa’s the rightful king, everyone else can go fuck off, despite the fact that most of the Dora Milaje warrior women could clearly kick the arses of either of those chaps, T'Challa included if they needed to. But especially Okoye, but I’ve said enough about her already.
There is a whole plot bubbling in the background that involves a one-armed South African enemy of Wakanda called Ulysses Klaue (peak Andy Serkis as a complete bastard who clearly loves every second of his overacting), and some formidable chap called Erik (Michael B. Jordan) who really, really wants to get to Wakanda. But the bigger story, from T’Challa’s perspective, is both a practical and philosophical question: is it his obligation as king of Wakanda to protect the secret super nation and its people from the world’s eyes, knowing full well what would happen if people found out what magical natural resources Wakanda possesses, or should Wakanda be a part of the world, helping to alleviate poverty and suffering wherever it can?
And what ties the various threads together is not what T’Challa is ultimately going to decide: someone out there, linked to the sins of T’Challa’s father, also has a plan for what Wakanda should be doing in the world, and there’s nothing benevolent about his plans.
In fact, you could say that Erik Killmonger’s plan is to extract both vengeance and eventual black supremacy for the oppressed peoples of the world by unleashing Wakandan weapons technology on a planet that won’t know what hit it.
The thing is, though, apart from his plan being something that would kill millions of people and see oppressors and the oppressed swap places, there are many who would be sympathetic to his scheme both within and outside of Wakanda. The origins of Erik’s rage aren’t even based in Africa – they stem from an incident in Oakland, California, back in the 1990s, when someone similarly felt that the only way to redress the horrors of centuries of systemic racism is not with cooperation, but with weapons and revolution.
It’s not a reach to say that this brings Black Panther back to its political roots, because no matter what the suits at Marvel said back then or might say now, it’s explicitly political to have a story where the main character decides not much of anything, but is forced to choose something because the villain’s choice makes too much sense.
Don’t get me wrong, as great as Erik kinda is as a character, I definitely don’t wish him well or endorse his plan. The difference from every other story where someone wants to wipe humanity out or just rule the world is that Erik doesn’t just want to get revenge and kill whole bunches of people in order to just be in power. Sure, he wants power, but it’s what he wants to do with that power that matters more than his aspirations.
A lot of writers have made the point that the easiest (and laziest) parallel people draw up here between T’Challa and Killmonger is that they’re like the Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X of their time. Simply put, that T’Challa wishes to safeguard his people and the whole human family with cooperation and faith and superpowered cat suits and such. Erik wants to safeguard black humanity By Any Means Necessary, including but not restricted to arming all freedom fighters so they can upend the global order, in a violent catharsis that makes up for centuries of miseries.
Well, it’s so simplistic that it might not even be true. Erik is definitely the Malcolm X here if there’s a Malcolm X (without that pesky Nation of Islam stuff) to be found, since he sees no value in humouring the white hegemony, and sees black emancipation through violent upheaval as the only goal. But the person who’s being the MLK isn’t T’Challa, it’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
In any and every other film she would just be the love interest who gets a couple of good lines between being threatened by the bad guys and having to be rescued, but in this very solid flick she’s also a tremendous character who challenges the ostensible lead’s entire worldview. Nakia’s job outside of this story is that she works as an operative outside in the world, spying for Wakanda but also helping where she can, fighting against slavery and human trafficking. She spends time in a world that T’Challa and the rest of the tribal aristocracy doesn’t really see or care that much about as long as Wakanda is fine. And she has a clearer idea of both what the hardships are out there, and how much Wakanda could be doing to help the world. Sure, Erik threatens T’Challa’s masculinity (and life, and throne), but Nakia is the one that forces him to consider that ignoring the suffering of others doesn’t negate it at all.
This story is so rich with complexity, and humour, and just a whole bunch of elements that practically none of these Marvel flicks ever have, so much so that the fact that it’s an action flick barely registers. The Pan-Africanism, the precise Afrofuturism of the aesthetics and architecture and realisation of Wakanda is so rich and strong, and the relationships between many of the characters, and the time and attention paid to the performances is so well done that the action is almost an afterthought. Here’s me, watching a $200 million action film not caring at all about (most) of the action and still loving the flick.
And I know how fanboyish I sound saying this, because even I realise how hokey much of it is, and how simplistic a rendering it is of the vast variety of cultural motifs, ethnicities and differences that exist across the continent, boiled down to something that'd satisfy the kind of audience that loves The Lion King. All it needed was a few songs from famed African musician Elton John and it would have been perfect (instead of that pesky Kendrick Lamar, who put together a superb soundtrack that has practically nothing to do with the film).
It’s the only one of these (Marvel franchise) flicks I’ve wanted to see again at the cinema, and the only one where the villain’s almost got a better argument than the heroes, with a last line like none that's ever been said or delivered at the end of a goddamn superhero flick that still now sends chills down my spine.
It was something genuinely interesting, amusing, enchanting even, and you can't say as much about most of these franchise flick. It was, and I'm sorry to play favourites, far more enjoyable than Last Jedi, and is easily the best experience I've had in a cinema for nearly a year.
Black Panther - come for the tribal fights, stay for the destruction of cars with angry spearing
9 times who wouldn't want to live in Wakanda after seeing this out of 10
"But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe." - yeah, but it's easy to say that when you're a cat god-worshiping superking, ain't it? - Black Panther