It seemed nearly impossible for Black Panther to live up to the pre-release hype heaped on by critics. As a part of the Marvel cinematic universe, which includes blockbuster superhero films like Iron Man, The Avengers, and the latest Spiderman reboot, it’s easy to assume that an audience pretty much knows exactly what to expect from their comic book flicks at this point – and yet, critics swore that this was something different.
They were right.
Make no mistake; Black Panther is a Marvel film through and through. By that, I mean that the narrative follows the same general blueprint of pretty much every superhero movie released over the last decade or so. We witness the rise of a hero, watch as he discovers dark secrets about his past, cling to the edge of their seats as his power is challenged, and after a big final battle, cheer as he prevails over evil before the end credits roll. In this case, our hero T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) literally dies and then rises again.
What makes Black Panther so unique is that, within that blueprint, it takes viewers to places that no other Marvel film ever has. Yes, it’s mostly very predictable, but it’s also hugely enjoyable, with breathtaking cinematography, incredible sets and costumes, and a cast more than worthy of accolades. On top of all that, and in addition to offering up the obligatory fight sequences and big-budget CGI, Black Panther is also a film that skilfully delves into much deeper subject matter.
Wakanda, a fictional African nation where the majority of the story takes places, is essentially a hidden Utopia. Concealed from the rest of the world for centuries, and thus unaffected by colonialism, Wakanda had developed technology and medicine far beyond what most of civilization has seen. One of the predominant struggles of the film is whether or not our heroes should be sharing their discoveries with the outside world; to empower disenfranchised minorities, save lives, and make the world at large a better place. Their reservation is that once the outside world catches on to all that Wakanda has to offer, they fear that their utopia will be snatched away like so much of the rest of their history.
“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
Sewn effortlessly into the fabric of a Disney-backed superhero film, writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole study the complexities of African history, examining the multi-generational effects of colonialism and centuries-spanning racial tensions. T’Challa’s nemesis in the film, Killmonger (Coogler’s frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan), plans to take over as king and open Wakanda’s doors. Having grown up in California, Killmonger witnessed black oppression firsthand and wants to use his peoples’ technology to arm men and women of African descent around the world in order to help them conquer autocrats and oppressors.
The subtext of the storytelling is far more nuanced than anything you’ll find in Thor or Captain America, but Black Panther never feels heavy or like its preaching to the audience. Rather, it truly feels like a story that’s been begging to be told for ages. Audiences of all backgrounds have embraced the film with open arms – in a matter of weeks, it has already crossed $1B at the international box office – but it feels particularly important for young, black audiences who have never seen someone who looks like them slip into a superhero suit and save the world. The fact that Coogler was able to organically focus on aspects of African history that are so often overlooked (especially in a franchise that is notorious for being tightly-scrutinized by the studio) is remarkable.
The cast here is stacked with critical darlings, including Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Basset, Forrest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya and Danai Gurira. Nyong’o and Gurira stole the show for me for me as Nakia and Okoye, two unapologetically badass female warriors. There are no damsels in distress here: in Wakanda, the women are soldiers, scientists, and heroes. Every member of the female cast is just as integral to the narrative – and the exciting final battle – as any of their male counterparts. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is a brilliant scientist who works in a lab that would leave Tony Stark envious.
The best of both worlds, Black Panther is the type of film that kids will love and parents will feel good about taking them to see. Sure, it’s as violent as any other Marvel film, but it also has heart and works hard to tell a story that goes far beyond what the average blockbuster has to offer. It truly feels like a new chapter for the Marvel cinematic universe, which audiences and critics alike have noted has become a bit predictable, if not downright stale, over the years. Black Panther is the hero we truly needed.