Once in a while, the studio machine gets it right, and what was supposed to be a typical genre picture hits all the right notes and becomes a timeless classic that transcends genre. The audience, or at least a segment of the audience, responds on a visceral level to the film, and it becomes a landmark in their lives. I believe Black Panther is one such film. I fully expect to see interviews 25 years from now in which leading scientists and thinkers point to this film as the reason why they pursued their career in the first place.
We’ve heard a lot in the past few years about “the male gaze,” most effectively illustrated by comparing the way Patty Jenkins filmed the Amazons in Wonder Woman to Zack Snyder’s treatment of the same characters in Justice League. Black Panther effectively illuminates the “white gaze” by showing us two hours of its absence. The film is proudly, unapologetically, profoundly afrocentric in ways both big and small, and the difference is profound. Director Ryan Coogler opens with a lovely fairytale version of the origin of the nation of Wakanda and the importance of its king and hero, the Black Panther, before shifting focus to the typical Oakland playground that you’ve seen in every modern “black” movie of the past 40 years. The film quickly subverts this trope and moves on to the real story, which has nothing to do with gangs, guns, drugs, pimps, or any of the other cliches left over from too many other films, instead focusing on the future of the world’s most technologically advanced civilization, which happens to be hidden in central Africa.
Aside from its societal impact, Black Panther is a solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but beyond that, it’s a solid movie. Under all the shiny high-tech eye-candy and incredibly effective action sequences, there is a powerful story about unintended consequences and the importance of keeping an eye on the bigger picture. I’ll try to be as spoiler-free as I can from here on.
As you may remember from the seemingly pointless digression in Avengers: Age of Ultron, creepy guy Ulysses Klaue, AKA “Klaw” (Andy Serkis), is one of the very few outsiders who knows that Wakanda is not a primitive third-world country of goat-herders, but is in fact sitting on a mountain of the exotic and powerful metal, vibranium. It turns out that he’s stolen some of it in the past, and now he wants more, and this time he’s aided by a mercenary known as “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), who has reasons of his own for getting involved. Meanwhile, T’Challa, as you may remember from Captain America: Civil War, has become king of Wakanda following his father’s assassination in that film. T’Challa must now prove he is worthy of the throne, decide what the future of Wakanda should entail, and deal with unexpected fallout from some of his father’s choices in previous years.
Along the way, there’s a museum heist, a couple of battles for the throne, a spectacular car chase through the streets of Korea’s port city of Busan, a full-blown civil war, and a number of other big action scenes, many of them dominated by Danai Gurira as General Okoye, a warrior woman who could be right at home on Wonder Woman’s island. She and her Royal Guard, along with Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, an actual Social Justice Warrior and T’Challa’s love interest, provide many of the best action scenes in the film. There’s not a single damsel in need of rescue here, and it’s a breath of fresh air, seeing confident, capable women in positions of power without any of the usual cliches intended to show that the men are still more awesome. Nobody ever talks down or mansplains anything to any of these women, nobody ever dismisses them or demands their credentials, and their performances are riveting.
The real surprise among the women is Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sassy smartass little sister, who happens to also be a technological genius who makes James Bond’s Q look like a kid playing with Legos. The sheer joy that Wright brings to the role is wonderful, especially since it’s a role that could have been merely a plot exposition device, but she turns Shuri into an inspirational figure for a generation of little girls in a way that all the STEM programs in America could only wish for.
Martin Freeman shows up as CIA agent Everett Ross (last seen in Captain America: Civil War), and one might expect him to immediately become the white POV character, our gateway into the film, but nope, that’s not happening. Freeman, as good as he always is, has well established himself as the sidekick through many of his other roles, and he plays a little of that here. He comes in with the typical “I’m CIA and we’re in charge now, I’ll handle this” attitude and learns very quickly that he is not in charge and not handling anything. He then transitions smoothly into sidekick mode and gets to participate in the battle that erupts, playing a crucial but not primary role. In yet another nice bit of subversion, Freeman basically plays the “indispensable second banana” role usually filled by Don Cheadle or another of the actors of color who stand somewhere to the right of the hero and look menacing.
Even Stan Lee’s cameo has a certain meta subtext if you stop to think about it.
Given the inherently socio-political underbelly of the film, and the many instances of deliberately sticking it to the crowd of racist-misogynist dillweeds currently stinking up Twitter and Facebook, one might expect that Black Panther is the SJW screed that said dillweeds are shrieking about, but nothing could be further from the truth. The socio-political underbelly is just that, subtext. Politics permeates the movie, but it’s all very much “show, don’t tell”; you’re left to draw your own (obvious) conclusions about the implications and ramifications of certain issues raised, but nobody stops to make a speech informing the audience of the writer’s intentions. In fact, nobody stops for anything; the movie gallops along at a brisk pace from start to finish. If you really need to go to the bathroom, you’d better go during one of the spectacular action sequences or you’ll miss important plot development.
As much as the film is a celebration of African culture and an empowering film for people of color, the more important point is that it’s a film full of hope, a celebration of diversity; the filmmakers never even hint at what the online ranters might label “reverse racism”; there’s nothing to suggest that white people are awful or that they are all racist. Likewise, there’s never a put-down of men, despite the near-constant presence of strong confident women throughout. Of course the GamerGaters and Sad Puppies are going to freak, and will try like hell to manufacture complaints about the movie, but anyone who sees the movie will know that their arguments are contrived and depend heavily on yanking things out of context and distorting them beyond recognition. Personally, I look forward to hearing their squeals of protest and laughing at their ridiculousness.
There’s a lot of subtext to think about, if we look at the characters as symbols. One might argue that there’s a bit of the old “Martin Luther King vs Malcolm X” dynamic at play between T’Challa and Killmonger, though neither of those two icons are ever mentioned. One could also look at the two white characters as symbolic representations of whiteness, or more accurately, colonialism. Klaw is imperialism personified; he’s a pirate, taking what he wants, and he expresses a lot of contempt for the people of Wakanda, whom he repeatedly calls “savages.” On the other side, Ross, whom Shuri addresses as “colonizer,” could be said to represent the “kinder, gentler” colonialism represented by missionaries. He’s there to help, to do good, but his attitude is that he should naturally be the leader and tell the locals what to do.
Ultimately, the Black Panther stands as one of the best Marvel films to date, and the one that most directly wrestles with the big questions of life in America, ironically by moving the discussion to a fictional country unmarked by our deepest scars. The film posits a society in which none of our race- and gender-based injustices exist, and by positing such a world, the filmmakers bring us one step closer to bringing such a world about. Certainly they will bring about a lot of future films that don’t dwell on slavery or the ghetto, moving past those horrors into a hopeful new world, one possibly built by the children who will be inspired to become like the heroes of this landmark film .