Black Panther is the 18th movie in the incredible successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It revolves around the titular character of T’Challa/Black Panther whom we first met in Captain America: Civil War two years ago. Following the events in that movie, Black Panther deals with T’Challa rising to the throne is his country Wakanda; an isolated African nation. He is challenged by an outsider who calls himself Killmonger. Killmonger has connections to Wakanda, most notably T’Challa’s father, the former king.
When Black Panther was first announced and the casting list was released I said to myself: it seems as if they have put almost every black actor working today in it. I will admit that is a bit of an over-statement. But still, never before has there been a movie on this scale, with this kind of budget, featuring an almost all black cast. The movie is also set outside of America for once and the black cast contains of fully fledged characters. It is a gamble in the eyes of a studio to make a movie with an almost all black cast. These movies often tend to be difficult to market outside of the U.S. Movies like Madea or Ice Cube’s Friday franchise often aren’t even released theatrically in Europe.
A movie set in Africa featuring a black superhero and an almost all black cast has made more money in a couple of days than the entire run of Justice League. A movie that features characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash. If you went back in time and told the 12 year old me this back in 1990, I would probably call you crazy. Also because that would mean you’re a time traveler and people have a hard time believing people who say they’re from the future in general.
Marvel seems to find ways with each movie they release to find a unique angle. Winter Soldier is a Cold war spy story, Ant-Man is a heist movie, Spider-man: Homecoming is a take on John Hughes’ filmography. Each movie fits the superhero movie mold; with a bad guy to fight in the final act. But they manage to have a fresh element every time.
The African aspect is Black Panther’s most defining trait. Take that away and what you’re left with is a largely run-of-the-mill superhero movie. There are a lot of politics involved, since T’Challa is king and all, but politics have been a part of several other MCU movies as well. Politics are what fueled the plot of Civil War for instance.
The script does have certain interesting moments in which the western world is confronted with the inconvenient truth of its history. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is looking at African masks and other pieces in a British history museum when he tells the museum director the guards have been following him the moment he came in. A reference to racial profiling. In a discussion with the museum director he tells her he’s going to take a certain item off her hands, to which she replies it is not for sale. His response displays a rather painful truth:
“How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it… like they took everything else?”
Killmonger is one of the better villains in the MCU. One could even argue whether he is truly a villain. His claim to the throne is legit as is plan to help people like him with Wakandan technology. The USA has been arming certain groups in conflicts for decades, so his plan might not be even that “evil”. He is a black guy raised in the U.S. Black U.S. audiences will probably identify themselves with him. The reference to racial profiling the movie makes, is almost a daily routine to them.
Not only does Black Panther delve on the troubled past of America and colonialism, it also reflects certain elements of the current political climate. The way Wakanda is run for instance: secluded from the rest of the world by mountains, a country that doesn’t take in any outsiders, not even refugees. The kings have been pushing a Wakanda first agenda since the beginning. When the movie starts T’Challa is basically a black Donald Trump.
One of the freshest elements in the movie is the way the Africa is portrayed. When we see African countries on TV it is often in a negative light. Somali pirates, dictators, civil wars, etc. Black Panther takes a more positive approach and shows us a wealthy country. One under a gentle monarchic rule. These aspects are praised by many people, especially black. I however do think that the way Wakanda is presented is a tad too far from reality. This also seems rather insulting to Africans. The only way it is seemingly possible to create a positive view about Africa is by creating a fictitious country full of made-up technology.
In fact: Wakanda reminded me of the many locations show in Star Wars. When T’Challs flies over the capital in his super sonic jet it looks like a random city from Star Wars. There are multiple scenes with the heads of the Wakandan Tribes that remind me of the Jedi council scenes in The Phantom Menace. These tribe members, each with their own unique style and accent, remind me of the various alien races you constantly see in Star Wars.
To top things of it takes very little to have the country fall into a civil war. Something which does echo the reality of the continent of Africa which in recent history has actual civil wars between tribes in countries like Rwanda. But it seems a bit of a stereotype to show an African country where a civil war takes place.
I understand the impact of Black Panther. It’s an important movie. But importance doesn’t make something automatically good. Black Panther is a decent addition to the M.C.U. Better than anything DC has put out since The Dark Knight Rises. But aside from the black casting and political commentary on current and past affairs there is nothing new on display here. Given that it’s really hard to come up with something truly original when it comes to the 18th movie in a series I am surprised how enjoyable and entertaining this movie is. This is the true strength of the M.C.U. at this moment: no matter how obscure the character is, they manage to craft well written stories each time. Black Panther is no different.
Black Panther’s success will probably have a downside to it. Next Halloween will feature news stories about young white kids dressing up as their new favorite Black Panther character and it will be called racist. Mark my words.