Last year, we got our first superhero flick led by a female superhero- not just featuring one- in Wonder Woman. It was a critical and commercial giant as it went on to be one of the top ten grossing films of the year. Nearly a year later, we get another first in Black Panther: the first super hero film helmed by black hero. Well, it is the first in this current wave of connected-universe-superhero-films. There have been others in the past such as Spawn and the Blade trilogy that were led by black heroes, as well as black superheroes popping up here and there as members of ensemble casts in both Marvel’s and DC’s universes. Regardless, Black Panther is already off to an incredible start with an astonishing $192 million opening, but does it stack up well to the best that Marvel and DC have been able to put out over the past decade?
The short answer is yes. Relating it just to other Marvel films, it is undoubtedly one of the best for that studio. The other major contenders for Marvel’s No. 1 spot are Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Additionally, both Winter Soldier and Black Panther address or at least acknowledge more complex socio-political issues outside of just beating up the bad guy. Winter Soldier addressed the dichotomy between patriotism and loyalty, as well as dabbling in some perspective about unilateralism and the idea that one force should police the world.
Black Panther takes on even more issues as it challenges everything from the presence of mass kidnappings and child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa- from organizations such as Boko Haram- to isolationism versus interventionism on an international stage. These films are the most complex of the Marvel films, and stand out as two of its best for that very reason. These larger issues are place on top of already solid films with good characterization and production that enable these films to potentially point to a shifting in the genre which may allow for more complexity to be mixed into our flashy action flicks.
If you were to point to one aspect of the film which allows it to stand out from traditional “summer” action films, it would have to be Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Killmonger. Black Panther features the best antagonist of any Marvel film to date, as he is the most complex of them all and is also the perfect foil for Black Panther as he grew into his role throughout the film. Most of the films key issues manifest themselves through the differing ideologies of Killmonger and Black Panther.
Marvel may finally be starting to figure good villains out, as Spider Man: Homecoming’s Vulture is now Joined by Killmonger as the best villains within the Universe.
The capitol city of Wakanda, the fictional African country of the film, is almost utopian; it features hyper advanced technology, the apparent abolition of poverty, and medical care that is able to heal even gunshot wounds in a matter of hours. However, these marvels are kept within Wakanda’s walled garden. For centuries, the leaders of Wakanda have been strict isolationists, not wanting to intervene or showcase their technology around the world for fear of its misuse by other nations in the name of power or control. Black Panther, whose real name is T’Challa, is the new king of Wakanda and initially adheres to this tradition.
Killmonger, however, is very different. He is an interventionist, who strives to take the throne of Wakanda from T’Challa in order to use the technology of the country to empower Africans and its descendants around the world. He has seen first had the hardships of black people in America, as well as other disenfranchised peoples all around the world, and his ambition is to hand them the means to rise up and take power for themselves from their oppressors. The beauty of Killmonger is that to a certain extent, he is right; Wakanda does have a responsibility to lend aid to others in need not only throughout Africa, but around the planet. T’Challa, in fact comes around to this interventionist mindset by the end of the film in part due to having his eyes opened by Killmonger.
This dynamic is the films greatest strength. The fact that Killmonger is in many ways right about his ambitions and desires for power makes him the best antagonist that the MCU has featured. He is not a mustache twirling villain out for world domination; he is a complex character that wants to give power, autonomy and agency to people like himself. His vision of the world is a foil to T’Calla’s in a similar way that Malcolm X was a foil to Dr. King. Killmonger’s views are even reminiscent of statements made by some civil rights leaders made half a century ago.
Even after he is defeated, Killmonger’s impact is very apparent. He had a hand in changing the course of not only T’Challa, but the entire nation of Wakanda. As he wanted, they were now going to engage with the rest of the world and provide support to those who needed it. Except where he was going to arm oppressed black people with weapons, T’Challa is going to arm them with schools and community centers. T’Challa even saves a condemned building in a poor African American community that is reminiscent of issues that real people face in America every day- and an issue that is addressed in other art forms as well.
There are many good things that Black Panther does, unfortunately, it cannot break away from some genre conventions which restricts its potential. It may be more willing to address complex issues for a flashy action film, but it is still very much a flashy action film. It has all of the usual bells and whistles that the producers of these must think that they need. Big action set pieces, orgies of compute effects, unnecessarily over the top fight scenes, and even distracting and pandering trips to Asia. Just as Wonder Woman was hamstrung by the apparent need to have a massive fight scene as the climax of the film, the final conflict between Black Panther and Killmonger was fought with an abundance of computer graphics and a backdrop of a sort of civil war complete with dudes riding CG rhinos. The final battle may well have been better served by a lower key, intense and well-choreographed final engagement, Bourne Identity-style, but we will never know.
Though filled with spectacle, action and a smattering of product placement, the car chase through the streets of Busan, South Korea is far from the strongest or most memorable aspect of the film.
These sort of trite battle scenes detract from the film. In addition to all of the good things this film did, it is also worth noting that it is directed by a black man, written by two black man and even features a female cinematographer (consequently the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award in that position) and each of those roles should be celebrated as the industry works to give the opportunity for more people to tell their own stories. But by making them stick to so many formulaic aspects of action films, the produces kept Black Panther from potentially reaching a level that only the likes of The Dark Knight and Logan have been able to reach as superhero films. In a film all about breaking away from the bondage that keeps disenfranchised people from reaching for greater things, it is a shame that is shackled to so many genre conventions which stunt its potential.
Despite an unhealthy does of action clichés, Black Panther engages in more than enough larger issues to be worth the price of admission, as well as kicking off a new year of high profile films. This is a rare super hero film that is about something more; it is introspective, engaging and most importantly, asks the audience to challenge their preconceived notions of the world. It is not accomplishing these things in the same way that arthouse drama would, but it is taking the genre in the right direction, and could be an archetype for more films which challenge the role of the comic book super hero films in the future.