“You are a good man, with a good heart, and it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
–T’Chaka (John Kani)
Some believe that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther character for the comic book The Fantastic Four to capitalize on the American Black Panther party and movement, but the Marvel character was conceived and published first. It doesn’t really matter if art imitates life or vice versa; both the fictional superhero and the political entity were born of the same social changes which confronted America in the 1960s, and still do.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, the much lauded director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, Black Panther deals with Wakandan Prince T’Challa’s coronation after the death of his father, the king. Returning to Wakanda after fighting alongside the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa discovers that being a wise monarch isn’t as simple as he believed. There are forces within and without who believe it’s time for Wakanda to reveal to the world the true extent of its enormous mineral wealth, and refashion itself as a major military power, the first governed exclusively by black people.
If anybody believed this film would be politics and social commentary-free, they’re obviously thinking of something other than Marvel Comics.
The sociopolitical subtext is fairly muted, as Coogler stages major action sequences, which he brings home spectacularly. Production designer Hannah Beachler creates a distinctly new look for a Marvel Universe heretofore set mostly in New York City, and it’s a gorgeous depiction of an idealized futuristic society in stark contrast to the bleak cityscapes we see in films like Blade Runner. Wakanda, like the Emerald City in Oz, is a wondrous place you want to go to, not run from, although we DO “run away” for a 20-minute sojourn to Busan, South Korea, where Wakandan Intelligence traces a smuggler who has stolen the highly-prized mineral “vibranium.” Some criticize this sequence as unnecessary and distracting from the action in Wakanda, but the Korean sequence is one of my favorites, with spectacularly choreographed action and a sumptuously designed casino set.
The film holds true to the mantra of Marvel Comics — “With great power comes great responsibility” — as T’Challa wrestles over when to use his superpowers and, more importantly, when not to use them, just as he wrestles with vibranium’s ability to allow Wakanda to export weapons. Still, the aspect of the film that wins me over is the casting. Chadwick Boseman — a native of Anderson, South Carolina, and star of films such as 42, Marshall, and Get On Up — is perfectly cast as T’Challa, turning in a fine performance in the conflicted lead role, especially when he confronts his father’s ghost about how kings behave, and in an end-credits sequence that makes you wish all politicians were like T’Challa.
Boseman is backed up by Michael B. Jordan (star of Fruitvale Station and Creed) as a villain whose perspective you can appreciate, Forest Whitaker in a role similar to his function in The Force Awakens, Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as T’Challa’s frenemy who questions the commitment to Wakanda’s seclusion, and Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis reunited years after their encounter as Bilbo and Gollum in 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Still, the audience’s favorite seems to be Winston Duke as a tribal leader who challenges T’Challa for the throne. Duke has a magnificent, bigger-than-life screen presence, and I hope Marvel finds a way to include him again.
Yet three actresses all but steal the film: Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as an agent in Wakanda’s foreign intelligence service, and T’Challa’s love interest; Danai Gurira of TV’s The Walking Dead as the general of T’Challa’s army and his personal bodyguard; and Letitia Wright, whose character is to T’Challa what “Q” is to James Bond, the inventor and explainer of the high-tech gadgets made with the precious vibranium. It’s a delightful relationship, as she scolds T’Challa for his occasionally flippant attitude about her laboratory, especially as she is also his baby sister.
If the film has a structural fallacy — other than the fact that I lose interest in these superhero fests in the last 20 minutes of obligatory superbattles — it’s that the women are much more important to the progression of the story than is T’Challa himself. It’s obvious that these powerful and intelligent women are the ones running the show. In fact, T’Challa would be out of the movie midway through if not for their intervention. I’m not going to call this a “flaw,” as I approve of it wholeheartedly.
The biggest detriment to the film is those naysayers who at once demean comic book movies as shallow yet at the same time complain that they shouldn’t be “political.” Yes, they should, and Black Panther is that perfect blend between escape and message.