It’s not surprising the newest Marvel superhero movie is getting a lot of buzz. In a time in which white supremacists are so openly prevalent, it’s an even bigger deal that Black Panther was made at all. For the record, the comic book preceded the Black Panther Party, and it is purposefully political. I don’t expect every person who buys a ticket opening weekend to like that it is political, but I hope that it at least makes everyone stop and think. This is a big deal, and it’s a big deal worldwide. The film does more than follow the paint-by-numbers of superhero blockbusters; it builds an entirely new nation that feels futuristic, and examines why this seeming utopia appears to be untouched by colonialism, advanced far beyond our current technological understanding.
A member of the royal family of the fictional country Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is thrust into kingship in the wake of the death of his father, and along with it, the role of Black Panther. The Black Panther is more than just the heroic and seemingly-magical warrior, it’s also the title of the leader of the Panther tribe, one of four tribes in Wakanda. Each tribe gets an opportunity to challenge for the throne prior to the official crowning. This ceremonial event takes place in the waterfalls, on a ledge just large enough for this battle. Onlookers watch from the mountainside walls, standing on various ledges as though they are at a football game.
This tradition brings together an abundance of beautiful clothing on beautiful people who hope for a peaceful transfer of power. The vibrant colors contrast so sharply with the normally dull color palettes of most other superhero films. The red hue of the female warriors’ armor stands out, as do the orange, purple, and blue fabrics worn by the tribes.
T’Challa’s family (Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Letitia Wright) watch the challenge from the crowd. Wright plays T’Challa’s scientist sister Shuri has developed a special suit for the Black Panther hidden in a claw necklace. Once it is on, it absorbs kinetic energy and pulses in purple veins until the Panther strikes its target, unleashing a tremendous amount of force.
The villains of the story, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Klaue (Andy Serkis, not in motion capture), first appear outside of Wakanda. They steal an artifact from a major history museum because it contains vibranium. This type of metal is found throughout the lands of Wakanda, and is mined for its power—it is embedded within Black Panther’s suit—and is a known element of the greater Marvel universe (specifically, Captain America’s shield). With vibranium weapons, wealth, and armor, Wakanda has technology so advanced that the nation has become an isolationist fortress against the outside world. In fact, the world thinks Wakanda is a third-world country, and has little-to-no inkling of the power beneath the nation. This protects both the world and Wakandan interests.
Killmonger disagrees with the nation’s isolationist policies because he feels that there is a kinship between African-Americans and the people of the African continent. Knowing that Wakanda, a nation of dark-skinned people, has all of this wealth and power – doing nothing to support Black people who continually fight against racist policy and actions – enrages Killmonger. He was born and raised in the U.S., but became a soldier who boasts his kills through raised markings on his skin. He has a whole hell of a lot.
It’s a little bit simple on the surface: Killmonger is the bad guy because he wants to hurt people who have wronged him and his melanin-brethren. But at the same time, it does ask some very hard questions about complacency, diplomacy, and familial rights. It seems simple that a man named Killmonger should not have access to a super-weapon, but literally all he had to do was walk in and take it. Of course Wakanda does not want others to access this level power, so they hoard it, which is almost as bad: they can heal wounds that would mean immediate death anywhere else, have incredible virtualization technology, and some of the nicest war-masks around. Is it fair that they know about human rights violations and do nothing? They could start or end any human war easily, and Killmonger feels betrayed.
Black Panther is still a superhero movie, though, so its occasional forays into that territory feel like an interruption to the Shakespearean story. I’d say it’s more Lion King than Hamlet, mainly because of the humor, but also because you get those mythic vibes as T’Challa is discovering his connections with previous Panthers. The movie lays out parts of the story so that it is as accessible as the other MCU films, but it’s clear that you really don’t need to see any of those other films if you watch this one, because Black Panther is the best part of everyone else’s powers.
There’s a lot more to it than that, and those who have seen any of director Ryan Coogler’s other work (Fruitvale Station, Creed), will recognize why he was chosen for this story, especially with the casting of Michael B. Jordan. Other highlights include Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’O, who both get great roles and will probably have action figures modeled in their likeness. This movie is not going to let you forget your time in Wakanda.