After years of establishing a formula, the superhero genre is flexing its muscles. Arguably, The Dark Knight, with its plot twists and its twisted villains – especially Heath Ledger’s Joker – moved the genre to a higher level. For the Marvel Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a clear-cut hero and threw him into a world filled with shades of gray. Its sequel, Captain America: Civil War – the best Avengers movie so far – hit an even darker tone. On the other side of the scale, Thor: Raganok managed to find a completely fresh voice by looking at the genre with a decidedly cockeyed view. While the DC films following Nolan’s trilogy have been mostly pedestrian, last spring’s Wonder Woman was transcendent, and a healing tonic after the misogyny of both the genre and the previous year’s presidential campaign. Now, Marvel has rocked the genre again with Black Panther, fittingly released during Black History Month.
T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and protector of his people in his guise as Black Panther, was the first Black superhero, appearing with The Fantastic Four in 1966. Two years later he had his own comic book series. From the outset the character was different from others in the Marvel Universe. Rather than accidentally gaining his powers (from gamma radiation or a radio-active spider bite, for example), his power was inherited along with his kingship. Where most superheroes are lone wolfs, Black Panther is firmly planted in a community. His first appearance on screen, in Civil War, was captivating. Where most superheroes blaze hot, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was a cool blue flame. He spoke softly, but when action was required he sprang into action like, well, like a black panther. But he was, essentially, on his own, except when aligned with Iron Man and others. Now with the stand-alone Black Panther, we see him in his element. The screenplay by director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Jon Robert Cole focuses not just on the hero but on the community that surrounds him, and empowers him.
The movie opens with the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, related by a father to his son. Five tribes battled over land where a meteorite had deposited vibranium. A warrior ingested a heart-shaped plant that had mutated by exposure to the vibranium. He gained great power, but rather than wiping out the other tribes, he used his strength to unite four of them. One tribe went their own way, but they were allowed to exist peacefully in the land. Powered by the vibranium, the Wakandans developed marvelous technology far beyond the rest of the world. But they hid their advancement from outsiders as European colonizers fought wars against the natives while slavery tore apart the fabric of Africa. Wakanda was an island in a troubled sea. The country became a paradise, guarded from outsiders by an elaborate ruse as well as a far flung network of spies embedded in nations around the world.
Following the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa is to be formally installed as king, but first he undertakes a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s his all-female imperial guard. They retrieve one of Wakanda’s spies, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), from her mission against modern-day slavers. They return to Wakanda where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), wait for them. Shuri is like James Bond’s Q played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the installation – and an unexpected challenge by the leader of the separatist tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) – T’Challa learns that a longtime enemy of Wakanda has surfaced. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had stolen a supply of vibranium from Wakanda years earlier and killed several Wakandas while making his escape. Now he’s surfaced after stealing an antiquity that was made from the metal, and is about to sell it in South Korea. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia head there to capture Klaue and recover the vibranium, but they’re unaware Klaue is working with an American mercenary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a former US Special Forces warrior, but he also has a special connection both to Wakanda and to T’Challa.
You don’t usually get a superhero story that’s about responsibility, both personal and socially, but that’s what Black Panther revolves around. It also posits what might have happened if Africa had been spared the twin scourges of colonialism and the slave trade. Since Wakanda avoided both, the narrative of slavery or prejudice and injustice that underlies so much of the presentation of blacks on screen, is not the central focus. Think of the recent black stories in the cinema: 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, or Chadwick Boseman’s first star turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Instead of dwelling there, Black Panther asks what is require from the Wakandans who have been so favored. Is it enough to maintain their hidden world, or have they a responsibility to act to help those who’ve been oppressed?
An outstanding aspect of Black Panther is the number of strong female characters in the mix. Gurira is a bad ass of the first order, matched by the dozen warriors she leads. Nyong’o is James Bond cool while Wright is a delight, a wisecracking genius who can hold her own in a battle. Bassett is regal in her role, but you also see the steel spine within her.
The men fare just as well, with Boseman building on his embodiment of the character from Civil War. As with the 007 movies, the quality of the villain often controls the quality of the film, and Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the best ever. His backstory and performance moves Black Panther close to a Shakespearean level; think Henry V on the outside, Richard III inside. A delightful surprise is Duke, a six-foot-six mountain of a man who plays a much more grounded and multi-dimensional character than usually portrayed in the comics. In addition, you have Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), each in important roles. The movie is overflowing with talent, and it uses that talent effectively.
Black Panther has already broken box office records for February and had the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history. The wonderful aspect of this, though, is the success is more than deserved. The movie not only tells a great story – it gives a large swath of the world a role model for whom to root.