Black Panther is being hyped as the movie of the year, and it’s certainly making an impact. It’s opening weekend was the fifth-largest of all time and it’s breaking lots of box office records. But how does this Africa-set superhero movie stack up? Pretty well, it turns out.
I have to say, I don’t think Black Panther was as transcendentally brilliant as the media hype says. It’s in the top tier of Marvel movies, for sure, and that puts it in a lot of good company. But at the same time, it puts it up against a lot of stiff competition if you want to rank them, especially since Marvel has really hit its stride in the past year and a half. I don’t think Black Panther stands out head and shoulders above its peers, and if I had to choose, I’d probably still put Avengers 1 on top. But it’s an excellent movie all the same.
My rating: 5 out of 5.
Black Panther continues the story of Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, whom we first met in Civil War. T’Challa returns home and is crowned King, but he soon faces new challenges in the form of the arms dealer Claue, who stole Wakanda’s miracle resource of vibranium and sold it to Ultron. But with him and then supplanting him comes the aptly named Killmonger, cousin to T’Challa, who challenges T’Challa to the throne and wants to use Wakanda’s might to liberate the African diaspora around the world, overturning the old order of the fiercely isolationist kingdom.
So, I do feel the need to clarify something here. Black Panther is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie with a black lead. The first serious superhero movie with a black lead was Spawn in 1997. The first Marvel movie with a black lead (and indeed Marvel’s first hit, period) was the non-MCU Blade in 1998. And the first black superhero in the MCU was War Machine in Iron Man 2 (2010). So the label of “first” applied to Black Panther is a bit dubious.
The reason I want to clarify this is because I want to understand what makes Black Panther different, because it absolutely is. Something has resonated for Black Panther at the intersection of cinema and the cultural zeitgeist of 2018, which didn’t for Spawn, Blade, or the tragically inconsistent Hancock (2008)—or at least didn’t resonate in a lasting way.
One interesting point, the Huffington Post notes, is that the protagonists of these earlier films were not fully human, while T’Challa very much is, which could be a crucial difference. Perhaps even more important is the fact that T’Challa’s African heritage is central to his character (without overwhelming the plot) whereas the race of his predecessors (including War Machine and Falcon in the MCU) is incidental. Then there’s the genre of the film, Afrofuturism, which is very different in style if not necessarily in substance from the traditional superhero mold. And of course, a nearly-all-black cast in a mainstream movie is something of a novelty in the pathologically cautious Hollywood. So there’s definitely something new going on here.
There’s a lot I could say about this film, but there are two points that I think illustrate how it did its job really well. The first is how it handled Martin Freeman’s character, CIA Agent Everett Ross. Frankly, there are a lot of ways that having one white protagonist in a nearly all-black cast could go wrong, but Black Panther deftly avoids them. Ross fits into his supporting role without either stealing the show or feeling shoehorned in.
The larger concern I had for the movie was the moral implication of Wakanda being the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, but hiding itself as one of the poorest nations and being so isolationist that they’ve done next to nothing to help their genuinely poor neighbors in East Africa. I was afraid that the film would gloss over this problem to preserve the goodness of its hero, but it didn’t. Indeed, it was central to the plot. Many of the most important characters, including T’Challa’s love interest Nakia on one side, Killmonger on the other, and, after some resistance, T’Challa himself, recognize that things need to change, and the central conflict revolves around how that change should take place.
This is the kind of story I really like to see. As a writer, I try to take the maxim, “Everyone is the hero of their own story” to heart, and I appreciate seeing villains who are realistic and have a valid point. Done poorly, they can still come off as cartoonish Knights Templar, but done well, it’s brilliant. This is part of what made Spider-Man: Homecoming so good, and it gives a big boost to Black Panther as well, which is just one more reason I highly recommend it.