‘Black Panther’ Harkens Back to Pre-“MCU” Blockbuster Filmscape with Nuanced Contemplation of Historical Consequence

Black Panther
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 14 minutes
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright


If you would have told me 10 years ago that a Black Panther movie would one day make more money (in one weekend) than a bonafide Justice League movie, I would have laughed out loud in your face. But lo and behold, the perfect storm has been brewing in those theoretical 10 years to actualize that “ridiculous” claim. Marvel Studios has influenced the modern blockbuster, perhaps more so than any other franchise in the history of the medium, with its episodic filmography sparked by the huge success 2008’s Iron Man. That first Iron Man film demonstrated that if executed properly, even an obscure property can become a household name. Four years later came 2012’s Avengers, showing what happens when a shared universe comes together – lots of money. And ever since, virtually every major studio has been chasing the success of the MCU with their own catalog of properties.

As an unfortunate result, the majority of blockbuster films (including several MCU films) have lost a certain thematic presence that made a lot of the pre-IronMan superhero films feel larger than life, and this is where Black Panther excels. Black Panther succeeds where Justice League, and the modern blockbuster in general, fails. The former has lot more in common with the prior-era superhero franchises like Blade (notwithstanding Blade: Trinity) and the Raimi Spider-Man films than with the typical MCU-fair, which, despite being consistently good, have stuck to a tired thematic structure. Black Panther (along with the last 2 MCU films Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming) is a truly special superhero film that not only achieves the missed quality of enchantment and wonder missing from current blockbusters, but also progresses the genre to a new level of artistic and cultural awareness.

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T’Challa (center), Nakia (left), and Okoye (right) return to Wakanda for T’Challa coronation as the new king

Black Panther is directed by Oakland, CA local Ryan Coogler (FruitvaleStation, Creed) and picks up immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War, where T’Challa/Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) father was killed, leaving him to take his father’s place as king of Wakanda. T’Challa elects to apprehend the notorious arms dealer and enemy-to-Wakanda, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) as his first kingly act. However, unbeknownst to T’Challa, Klaue is allied with a mysterious soldier with a unique relationship to Wakanda, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Along the way T’Challa/Black Panther is guided and supported by his entourage of powerful women: his childhood love turned international spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leader of the Wakandan royal guard Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), the charismatic genius behind all of the fancy tech on display.

A lot has already been said on the merits of the film from it’s outstanding ensemble cast to it’s impeccable world building, so rather than regurgitate the common consensus, I want to instead talk about the central conflict between Wakanda’s history of isolationism and nelgect, T’Challa’s struggle to decide how to change Wakanda for the better now that he is king, and Erik Killmonger’s “radical” plan to fix the world. **spoilers ahead**

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Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) having their first face-to-face in the Wakanda throne room

At the end of the second act of the film, it’s revealed that Killmonger is the half-Wakandan, half-African American son of N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), T’Challa’s father T’Chaka’s (John Kani) brother (so T’Challa/Black Panther’s uncle), whom his father murders in self-defense in the flashback at the beginning of the film. It is stated that N’Jobu worked with Klaue in the 90s to steal a cache of Wakanda’s precious vibranium, which was to be utilized to help liberate African Americans in the United States. However, despite N’Jobu’s insistence that the heist take place discreetly, and with Klaue being as over-the-top as we see he is, many Wakandans are killed in the process, warranting N’Jobu’s prosecution by his brother, king of Wakanda, and acting Black Panther, T’Chaka. N’Jobu at first tries to deny his involvement, but he is quickly ousted by his trusted confidant Zuri (played in the present day by Forest Whitaker), who N’Jobu believed to be an Oakland, CA local, but is actually a Wakandan spy. Devastated by Zuri’s betrayal, N’Jobu pulls a gun to kill him as T’Chaka turns to leave, but T’Chaka deflects the gun and drives his vibranium suit claw into his brother’s chest, killing him. T’Chaka and Zuri flee as a young Killmonger, who was just playing basketball with his friends outside, discovers his dad dead with claw marks in his chest. Out of fear of his people’s reaction to the half-blooded Wakandan, T’Chaka abandons the orphaned Killmonger in the streets of Oakland without as much as an apology. It’s this “Wakanda-first” mindset, which is understandably explained in the film’s opening exposition, that creates the villain Killmonger eventually becomes.

Even before learning the revelation from Zuri in the present day, T’Challa is already wrestling with whether or not he should take Wakanda’s foreign policy into a new direction now that he is king. Much to the argument of Nakia, Wakanda has an existential responsibility to help those in need around the world solely because it has resources to do so. The film’s first action scene sees Black Panther killing some African rebels to rescue Nakia, and in the process also saves a group of captured Africans. However, despite their delight of being the presence of the flashy Wakandans, it’s implied that if Nakia was not in their midst, T’Challa would have never rescued them from their dire situation. Wakanda’s deliberate inaction in a world filled with poor souls desperate for liberation from their respective oppressors and unfortunate circumstances is not just questionable, it is moral fraud.

Contrary to Wakanda’s historical insistence on secrecy and passivity, Killmonger, who has a legitimate bloodline to the throne, wants to take the country in the reverse direction and purpose the nation’s unmatched resources towards the destruction of the numerous institutions that have oppressed the less fortunate throughout history, specifically but not exclusively black people. Coming from the streets of Oakland, CA, Killmonger has experienced first hand the existential struggle of being black in the world and has dedicated his life to besting the “White man” by first becoming him: excelling in academia (studying at M.I.T), learning to take life as a US soldier, and engaging in high crime with the likes of Klaue. To him, every terrible thing he’s done is justified when weighed against his ultimate goal.

In many ways Killmonger is correct in his belief that violence is essential for meaningful change in the world to take hold, but it is not the sole means. Where Killmonger becomes a villain is in his desire for revenge against a world that has historically subjugated his people. That is, he does not want to just destroy the oppressor, he wants to become the oppressor. It’s that fine line between liberator and vindicator that separates a hero from a villain.

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Killmonger prepares for combat against off-screen assailants

T’Challa too can see the validity in Killmonger’s worldview, and even refrains from trying to dissuade him from his course, but he also sees the dangerous, volatile nature of what Killmonger will onset. In this regard, T’Challa is also correct in his belief that vindictive violence will only exacerbate a violent world. However, it’s important to keep in mind that with Wakanda being a historically isolationist nation, T’Challa has never had to experience the adversity that every other black person in the world has. So while, he understands Killmonger, he can’t truly understand him. T’Challa does what he must to spare the world from an uncertain fate. In the end, **spoiler** Killmonger is ultimately killed by T’Challa, but in his final moments denies T’Challa’s offer to treat his injuries, instead choosing “death over bondage,” just as the Africans who jumped to their deaths from the slaves ships rather than live in chains. The fact that T’Challa even asks the question, proves that T’Challa can only sympathize with Killmonger, but can’t understand him.

Some people have accused this film of animosity towards African Americans in favor of Africans, as well as being suppressive of African Americans’ deserved outrage. And while those are interesting questions to raise against the film, I believe that Coogler says something else entirely with his film. The entire plot of the film signifies the historical and political dynamic of modern America. Just as the hundreds of years of Western colonialism and exploitation in Africa, South America, and the Middle East cultivated the wave of terrorist groups in the 21st century, it was T’Chaka’s lapse of character, in a single moment nonetheless, that created Killmonger and inadvertently led to the death and suffering of countless people. When a nation refuses to acknowledge the sins of its past, people like Killmonger will always exist to burn it down. T’Challa/Black Panther is the hero in this story because he does the opposite of that; he acknowledges the sins of past kings and instead of denying that those sins ever occurred, he internalizes them as the mistakes they were and actively works to correct them right now – something America has yet to figure out. Even after all of his impressive feats of action in the Black Panther suit, T’Challa’s most heroic deed takes place while outside of the bulletproof suit: his gesture of transparency in Oakland at the end of the film, which demonstrates exactly what makes him a great superhero, his morale constitution.

9.5 / 10

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