Black Panther Movie Review: “It’s hard for a good man to be king”
Warning: Minor Spoilers below
Everybody’s talking about Black Panther. Marvel Studio’s film centered on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the superhero Blank Panther and king of the fictional African nation Wakanda, provides many meaningful topics worthy of discussion. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) the real world concerns raised in Black Panther is open to different levels of examination and perspectives.
Black Panther begins with a flashback to Oakland in 1992, when T’Challa’s father makes a couple of fateful decisions. In the present day, T’Challa’s father recently died and now T’Challa is to become king of Wakanda, a technologically advanced country due to an all-purpose, virtually indestructible vibranium meteorite landing there ages ago. The use of a cloaking device prevents the outside world from knowing the truth about Wakanda and their decision to remain in relative isolation.
T’Challa is faced with the decision to either follow his father’s legacy in protecting Wakanda’s secret or put their country and cultural traditions at risk by helping the the rest of the world with their superior resources. Meanwhile, former black-ops soldier Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is on the hunt for vibranium and he poses a serious threat to T’Challa, Wakanda and the entire world.
In Ryan Coogler’s previous film Fruitvale Station, he took the tragic news headline about Oscar Grant, an African American who died while being detained by police, and made it into a personal, nuanced movie. It’s a real life story about a man recently out of jail who’s trying to make ends meet to provide for his family and young daughter. Coogler created a “day in the life of film” in a way that many people can relate to their own experience. Specific stories can convey ideas that are applicable to the wider world. With Black Panther, Coogler is also tapping into a specific experience that is yearning to be heard and acknowledged which in itself is a universal experience.
Coogler is an African American directing a predominately black cast in a blockbuster superhero movie. To begin to answer what that might mean it may require posing the right questions. In doing research for Black Panther, Coogler wanted to know what does it mean to be of African descent? And in the context of the film, what are King T’Challa’s personal responsibility to his family, his people, his country and the world? It’s the process of T’Challa working out these questions that provides meaning to the story.
Further, Black Panther is resonating because our society not only needs to identify with but more importantly aspire to an ideal. Society needs to aim for a noble ideal or suffer when there is the lack of an exemplar of what people should be moving towards. As a secular society we express these ideals in modern myths which is in part driving the popularity of the superhero film genre.
The tagline: “Hero. Legend. King.” accurately encapsulates Blank Panther. In stories, a benevolent king represents the best attributes of good men. A superhero is the embodiment of the best ideals across many heroes. As important as it is to form and belong to a group identity, the next step is to build the content of one’s character as an individual. It’s the competent individuals or heroes who contribute to the betterment of the group.
The individual characters each have their own strong point of view. For example, royal protector Okoye, played dynamically by Danai Gurira, is loyal to the country and to whomever is king. To contrast that, T’Challa’s ex-lover and spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) doesn’t draw borders between countries, she sees the world as one; her loyalties aren’t written in stone so to speak. Each perspective is presented as valid positions to be considered. As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman conveys poise and dignity navigating each of these perspectives in order to attain a measured way forward based on the current situation.
Black Panther’s transformation is really well visualized in the ritual of drinking the herbs that give the super powers which then takes him to the mystical ancestral plane. The old “you” is literally buried and through the process the new “you” emerges. Connecting to your forefathers in the ancestral plane is a symbolic representation to show there is wisdom embedded deep in our culture but that it is also your obligation to update it according to the current times. Further, the connection between father and son is incredibly vital and if society abandons their sons they do so at their own peril.
This brings us to Eric Killmonger, a disturbingly dangerous villain. He wasn’t born a villain he became one. Killmonger and T’Challa aren’t just mirror images of one another with the sole difference being their geographical birthplace. Killmonger is disconnected from his heritage and does not have respect for Wakandan culture.
Killmonger is one of two outsiders who put Wakanda’s border policy under examination. The first character is Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) who receives some quippy remarks from T’Challa’s tech savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Everett Ross is pretty naive about Wakanda but is fairly adaptable and makes a contribution. On the other hand, Killmonger uses Wakanda’s traditions and values to get a foothold on the country and then dispenses with those very traditions and values when he get what he wants.
Like many blockbuster action-films there are usually areas for improvement. T’Challa’s responsibilities as king is a different element from other superheroes but it didn’t add enough of an extra dimension to make him completely compelling. It’s good thing that the supporting characters complement him and inject less serious moments. The sequels can flesh out in greater detail how Wakandan culture evolved with the advancement in technology. Further, the fight scenes that carried some suspense is the ritual combat which didn’t use a lot of CGI. In contrast, the heavily CGI final fight sequence needs stronger choreography and intensity.
Black Panther is an above average superhero film. It has it’s own vibe and unique world within the MCU that may personally resonate much stronger with some movie-goers. Wakanda is a fictional country so how much of these issues are applicable to the real world is up to the viewer to examine. The film accomplishes its main objectives which is to be mostly entertaining and shows us why Black Panther is an important superhero in the MCU lineup.