This is NOT just another Marvel movie.
Black Panther gamely partakes in the Marvel Universe while largely operating as a standalone action movie striving to deliver a societal message of great relevance.
Let’s start with what I determine to be the most important aspect of Black Panther. I am a forty-one year old white male. My whole life, I’ve enjoyed white superheroes depicted in comic books, cartoons, toys, and movies. Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, Toby Maguire, and Hugh Jackman are but a few. Let’s not forget to mention the action stars that peppered my youth such as Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Kurt Russle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Tom Cruise–the list can go on an on. It wasn’t until my own daughters were born that I realized women and people of color weren’t given characters who reflected their identity–not in the way that I always enjoyed.
So Black Panther ISN’T just another movie.
For many, Black Panther represents a cultural shift. It signifies an important moment in our society, a moment that says those who were previously underrepresented will now be given time to shine. And guess what? Those who are typically underrepresented on film are letting the world know there exists an audience hungry for more. It’s no accident that Wonder Woman financially overachieved. It’s not happenstance that Black Panther DOUBLED the previous Thursday night ticket sales record for February. The numbers say it all.
I’d like to quickly mention another interesting detail. My friends and I regularly go to superhero movies on either its Thursday or Friday opening night. I write this on Saturday morning, February 17th. We attended the 9:00 p.m. Black Panther show on Friday night, February 16th. As soon as we entered the theater, it became obvious this superhero movie was different. There were more African American women, men, and children in the theater than I’ve ever seen before at a premier. I instantly felt in the minority and a little out of place. The irony was not lost on me, nor should it be lost on you.
Let’s talk about the actual movie.
First of all, they have created with Black Panther a world unto itself. Wakanda, the African nation in which Black Panther rules, felt solid, real, and established. This utopia drew me in completely. Its glorious technology felt tenable, as did its ancient rituals. The clothing, the environment, the language, the customs, the unique neighboring tribes–it all struck me as genuine. The filmmakers successfully created a world that I hope will live on in the Marvel movies for decades to come.
I also loved that they introduced an entirely new technology concept to the Marvel Universe. Yes, vibranium has been seen in Marvel movies before, but never to this extent. The full potential of the metal is explored in Black Panther, and I imagine Tony Stark is going to be very jealous. However, the filmmakers didn’t just use vibrainum as a means to an end. It wasn’t just the reason they had a Black Panther suit or weaponry or ships. It also served a cultural purpose to the Wakandan society. They made it clear that vibranium influences their way of life, and has for generations. This kind of storytelling and world building is greatly appreciated by those such as me.
The supporting cast in Black Panther also made the film radiant. His mother, his sister, his general, his friends, his challengers, his mentor–they all had distinct personalities and they all utilized a charisma specific to their character. No one wasted a moment on screen.
As for the story, I believe Black Panther broke new ground for Marvel movies. Marvel always does action, humor, and general story pretty well. They are very good at blending one movie into the next. No one is denying that. However, I don’t believe Marvel ever tried to say anything socially relevant … until now. Black Panther challenges itself not just to deliver an action-packed feast full of visual splendor. It also tries to say something–something specific not only to people of color, but to all races, all peoples, all creeds, all governments. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s definitely there. Do they hit you over the head with it a little too blatantly at times? Sure, but so did The Post, and it’s up for an Oscar.
When I saw the previews, I felt a little apprehensive about Michael B. Jordan’s villain–Killmonger. I didn’t like that he also wore a Black Panther suit in the previews. This is a tried and true mistake superhero movies make time and time again. Hulk fought a version of himself. Spider-Man has fought a version of himself. Superman has fought a version of himself. Iron Man has fought a version of himself. The Flash regularly fights versions of himself on his TV show. You get the idea. I’m glad that they found a sensible reason to have Killmonger in the Black Panther suit that organically served the story well. When you see the movie, it makes perfect sense.
Killmonger brings me to my only complaint about the film. It bothered me that the only black American male character in the entire movie was depicted as angry and out for revenge. I may be reading too much into it, but it seemed as though a subtext existed that black American males cannot save themselves–only outside benefactors such as Wakandans can come rescue them. We know this is not true, especially in the Marvel Universe. We’ve seen upright American men of color in the Marvel movie and TV universe before such as Luke Cage, Falcon, and War Machine. And I realize that it would have been awkward to sandwich those characters in only to serve as a parallel to Killmonger, but it still bothered me a bit, especially because I’m positive that this is, for many people, their first Marvel movie. They may not even know about those other African American characters. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the only other major American male in the movie was Everett K. Ross, a white intelligence officer who helps save the day. See what I’m saying? Am I way off on this one?
Speaking of subtext, I loved the fact that Wakanda absolutely relied on its women to thrive. From the military to the sciences, women were the driving force of order and progress in their society. Black Panther may have been king, but the women ruled in every other way.
I believe Black Panther succeeded on all levels. It kept the overarching Marvel story line moving forward while also delivering an epic standalone film that delivered relevant social commentary. Even if you’ve never seen a Marvel movie before, you can go into Black Panther and enjoy it as an entity unto itself. In fact, I encourage you to do so. Though plainly obvious by now, I highly recommend Black Panther.