Ryan Coogler’s superhero film Black Panther tells a socially-relevant story and breaks barriers at the same time.
Black Panther currently sits as the most critically-acclaimed superhero film of all time on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes with 97% (roughly tied with 2004’s The Incredibles) as of writing. Not to mention its current dominion on the global box office, let’s head on and discuss what Black Panther represents and the reasons why so many people flocked into this film.
1. Black pride
By now it is apparent that Black Panther brings the largest pool of African-American talent ever assembled in Hollywood, an industry once impenetrable for the race of color. We have an African-American director (Ryan Coogler), African-American casts, writers, musicians, crew down to its bit players. In the fullest sense, Black Panther is a revolution fueled with sheer determination against historical colonialism.
We live in different countries, hang out in different neighborhoods, go to separate churches and even schools at times, and the most accessible way to be submerged to an entirely different culture is through mainstream media. When we see ourselves being portrayed on the big screen, movies—for better or worse—can be potent catalysts for self-authentication. I can only imagine this in the case of an African-American kid watching this film for the first time and taking pride of his roots after.
2. Visual feast of world building
Wakanda tangs of ironies and extremes. To one end, Wakanda conceals itself as a third world African country but beneath its electromagnetic barriers, it is actually a highly-advanced wonderland, thanks to its much-coveted reserves of vibranium. Wakanda leads on innovation, light years ahead of the status quo, but it never forgets its rituals and culture.
The arresting visuals on T’Challa’s dream sequences, the warrior falls, the royal palace, Shuri’s spiral staircase lab, the splendid wardrobe design deftly playing on African colors of red, green, black, and even the war rhinos, these are where Thor’s Asgard come up short. Both of them are fictional worlds but since Wakanda is grounded on real-life culture and tradition, it comes out as a fully realized world, not just a gorgeous Hollywood set where a bunch of paid actors hang out.
3. Hail the new king
As heroes are forged in the fires of tragedy, T’Challa is no different. Black Panther picks up from the events of Captain America: Civil War where T’Challa returns to Wakanda after the death of his father and assumes his role as the new king.
Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal has a good mix of humility and heroism – a character that can be perceived as a hero and a failure. But what’s best is despite having a strong central hero, the movie does not let its main character trample on the supporting casts.
4. The women of Wakanda
In his spirit journey, T’Challa’s father counsels this to him, “You’re going to struggle so surround yourself with people you trust.” Interestingly, T’Challa chooses to be surrounded by women: his regal mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his spear-wielding general Okoye (Danai Gurira), his old flame/covert agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and of course his sarcastic tech prodigy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). From the moment Shuri steps in sporting Princess Leia’s hair buns, I know she’s going to be my favorite character. (Is this a nod to Disney’s financial acquisition of Marvel?) Plus, let us not forget the moment when she expressed distaste for her brother’s choice of footwear via a Vine hit: *read in Shuri’s sassy voice* “What are thoooose?!”
A mother, a bodyguard, an ex-lover, a sister—it’s engaging to see how these relationships play out on screen. Marvel seldom uses its women to be the driving force of the plot. In here, there is a part of the film where the women completely took over. One of the best scenes is Okoye and Nakia questioning each other’s basis of loyalty.
5. Erik Killmonger
A common flaw for most Marvel films to date is the lack of a memorable or intriguing villain. Most of the time we are served with standard supervillains bursting with dreams of world domination (I’m pointing fingers at you: Malekith the dark elf, Ronan the accuser, and Hela goddess of death) but Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) stands out because his character motivations are rooted in real life problems. He can’t be blamed for the painful circumstances of his past, thus he has every right to be against the people who perpetuate the system of oppression (and eventually created people like him). However, his means are questionable. With his character arc, we can see that righteous anger can go sour and before we know it the oppressed becomes the oppressor.
6. Political undertones
Looking past the film’s milestone in black representation, Black Panther has a lot to say on a political level. What good is a nation if it does not uphold its values towards its neighboring countries in need? Can a nation really thrive in isolation in this modern world? These are not the type of questions one would normally ask after watching a superhero flick.
Black Panther’s central conflict revolves around vibranium – along with the wonders and dangers it can bring to humanity. Wakanda has the “great power” but it’s hesitant to take the “great responsibility.” But what is the “great responsibility” anyway? T’Challa, presumably having little experience in racism says that Wakanda should carry on with isolation and avoid risking the vibranium to be in the hands of the wrong person; Killmonger, having a lifetime of experience in oppression, claims that vibranium should be used to flip the scales and create a new world order for black people; Nakia, having traveled the continent during her espionage missions stands on a middle ground—that while Wakanda should remain in secrecy, it should still uphold its humanitarian responsibilities to the African-Americans all over the world. While some superhero films easily dismiss the conflicting sides as either good or evil, Black Panther makes a different point: black and white thinking does not work in a gray world.
Also noteworthy runners-up are the film’s natural sense of humor and the action set pieces that are better than the usual. The Bond-esque side-mission in Busan, South Korea will go down as one of my favorites.
To achieve global success, Marvel films need to be smarter, funnier and often bigger than your average superhero film. But for a Marvel film to ‘really work’, it needs to have a purpose beyond the firework spectacle. Black Panther manages to tell a socially-relevant story and break barriers at the same time. It channels intelligent themes without making it look complicated than it is. It goes beyond the task of telling T’Challa’s home origin and tackles subjects such as the legacy of colonialism, tradition vs. progress and patriotism vs. social conscience, etc.
Now Marvel, where’s our all-Asian cast superhero film?