I have difficulty in speaking to Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe because I don’t go out of my way to see superhero movies unless they offer something different. That alone explains why I would go to see it despite having only seen Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool in theaters among the latest crop, since it features a primarily black cast and incorporates African culture into the Marvel mythos. I can say that Black Panther is very entertaining. In fact, I was pleased to see that it could have existed outside of the franchise completely, having little to do with any of the superhero in-fighting and world-building that seems to make up the others. The conflict is totally restricted to the world made for the movie alone, and the opposing ideologies between the characters that exist only for that world, as well. One of the biggest reasons for my disinterest in the Marvel series is that each film looks merely like an expensive feature-length trailer for the next one. While I can definitely see the checkpoints that Black Panther sets for its eventual involvement in the next Avengers movie, the bulk is made up of the Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) fight to preserve his home-nation of Wakanda against Eric Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) plans to use their Vibranium resources for world domination.
Most enjoyable, aside from any action-packed formula that draws in the big crowd, would be the African imagery. Director Ryan Coogler borrowed from the dressings and physical adornments of several African nations and tribes to color the characters and settings. Some of the architecture of the secret Wakandan metropolis is based on natural formations in South Africa, and the Dragon Flyer aircraft seen in climactic action scenes is said to be modelled after the Congo Pea Fowl. Sleek metal and leather superhero garb is in abundance, but augmented with patterns, accessories, makeup and skin markings. Especially on Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, who has scarification all over his body to mark each person he’s killed. Not to mention the kente cloth cloaks with intricate African imagery and written symbols. The Wakandan language is even based on the Xhosa language of South Africa.
In addition to the reverence of African customs and visuals, Black Panther has consistently strong women in the cast. And it never seems like a handpicked sampling of badass women injected with masculine features to make them strong. The Wakandan royal guard, known as the Dora Milaje, is made up entirely of women, the head of which is the spitfire Okoye (Danai Gurira). Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, who is also a part of these forces, while also serving as a slight love interest of T’Challa (though never explicitly, keeping her character strictly practical and in service to the story’s conflict). Without a doubt, these female characters are equals to the Black Panther and not sidekicks. Their presence is invaluable to him when it comes to subduing evil forces, particularly Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who engages T’Challa, Nakia, Okoye, and T’Challa’s tech expert sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) in a brilliant dual car chase.
There’s some good social commentary in the movie as well, as is to be expected. One comparison that can be readily made is that the Black Panther and Killmonger are like MLK and Malcolm X. One sees peace as the ultimate goal and the other feels action, even when violent, is necessary to end oppression, all the way up to arming the oppressed to claim a new supremacy. Although both sides are exaggerated in that respect. T’Challa’s pacifistic tendencies go all the way to passivity and isolationism, ignoring the suffering of black people around the world (a strong example would be that Wakanda is a hidden paradise housed within a third-world country), and Killmonger is explicitly an advocate for violence and invasion, becoming the tyrant that colonialism thrives under the rule of. Immigration pops up as an issue, too, in regards to Wakanda’s strict exclusivity and seeming purism. Therein lies some of the most refreshing aspects of Black Panther, thematically. Both sides have validity and flaws. While the bad guys are bad, they hold values that the good guys would be wise to consider. The Black Panther and his side, too, have approaches to peace that could be honed. The use of culture, history, and inherent strength are determinants in considering these opposing stances, and in addition to establishing the contribution of Black Panther and Wakanda to the superhero world, they provide a means to reduce world suffering in a way that can be applicable to the common people. | Nic Champion