In 1966, Marvel creator Jack Kirby asked his colleague, the writer and editor Stan Lee, a simple question. ”Why don't we have a Black superhero?”
In the summer of that year, Fantastic Four #52 saw the first appearance of T'Challa, King of Wakanda...aka Black Panther. Last weekend, over 50 years later, the comic world's first mainstream Black superhero has his own film. Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther is not only a damn good comic book movie, it's a shift in American film culture. And if its opening weekend is any indication — the film’s $235M in four-day holiday weekend ticket sales in U.S. and Canada make it the fifth-highest cinema opening of all time — it will hopefully open the way for more film and TV opportunities for heroes of color.
In fact, it's really hard to write a cogent review of the movie because its cultural importance almost outweighs everything else. I grew up as a Black kid in Scarborough who yearned for heroes in comics I could look up to and emulate. Discovering Black Panther as a child was a revelation. You become so used to people of color depicted as villains or drug dealers or sidekicks or even cannon fodder in both film and in comics, that when you’re finally presented with an unabashed superhero, it's overwhelming. Here is somebody who looks like me, doing the same thing as Batman or Wonder Woman or Iron Man. I think that cultural importance, that changing of old mindsets, will be the movie's real legacy. Just like it was for Wonder Woman, representation matters. Especially for kids.
Taking place days after the events of Captain America: Civil War, (where the initial reveal of Wakanda and the assassination of T’Challa’s father led to a war between Marvel’s previous established heroes) the film plays as part superhero action piece, part Shakespearean drama, and part dive into Afro-Futurism. Set almost completely in the fictional nation of Wakanda (a place that makes Asgard look like a low-rent strip mall), we follow T'Challa (Boseman) as he deals with a wealth of issues, any one of which could have been the foundation of its own movie. There's the death of his father and his quest for revenge. There’s the political and social ramifications of becoming the new protector of Wakanda, a mythical African nation, and what role the Wakandans will play as they emerge. There’s the fact that Wakanda sits on a giant mountain of Vibranium, a super element that has allowed them to become more advanced than their neighbors as well as resist colonization and remain mostly hidden from the rest of the world.
And there’s the rise of T’Challa’s rival Killmonger, played amazingly by Michael B. Jordan, whose performance made him the best Marvel villain to date (Thanos who?). Killmonger’s motivation is equal parts King Lear and The Wire — you can sympathize with him but still condemn his actions (which are purely psychotic). Coogler does a masterful job of juggling these plots while never losing sight of the heart of the character. The additional elements he brings in, like the details of Wakandan tribal politics and tribal histories, really create a wonderful tapestry to build on, and makes the viewer want to know more about this “hidden world.”
That being said, the film is not perfect. The CGI is pure hackery in a couple of instances, including the final showdown (there's a scene from Black Panther's inauguration that looks a Nintendo game from the early 2000's). Also, the resolution of the 'tribal conflicts” set up in the film are basically resolved by a hand wave (and a jumbled battle with giant rhinos?) as the filmmakers have to set the boards for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, set to hit theaters in a couple months.
For all the wonderful female characters they introduce (including Danai Gurira as the King's main bodyguard/general and Lupita Nyong'o as a kick-ass spy and sometime-girlfriend to the King), the film's themes of inheritance to the throne and ultimate leadership are still presented as primarily a man's domain, with leadership actually being decided by ritual combat. For a country that prides itself on being more advanced than the outside world, having a couple of guys duke it out for the Kingship seems a little regressive.
While at no time do you feel you're being preached to,there are a lot of social and historical issues brought to the fore in the movie, including the history of slavery, white colonization of Africa, and our current political climate. Make no mistake, this movie is “woke.” On top of that, Kendrick Lamar does an amazing soundtrack, that really should have been highlighted a lot more within the film (see Netflix's Luke Cage for a masterclass on how that's done).
Black Panther is a great film, placed perfectly in the current cultural zeitgeist. It's easily one the best Marvel movies to date. It makes me excited not only for more Black Panther movies, but that it opens the doors for studios to produce more superhero movies with more diversity. DC, Marvel and Valiant Comics in particular have a whole range of heroes of color that deserve their own showcases. Hopefully Black kids growing up won't to have to to do the same searching I did as a kid, looking for heroes who look like me.