When I went to see Black Panther, it had already had been announced as Marvel’s most successful superhero film and as of April, was still showing at various multiplexes despite being initially released in February. It was also to go down in history as the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia in 35 years.
Before it had even hit cinemas around the world it was marking its territory in our cultural history forever. Marvel, the comic book-film studio juggernaut that has currently 17 on-the-whole acclaimed film adaptations in its ‘cinematic universe’ was considered to be at something of stalemate. Fans and cinema-goers alike were getting a tad battle weary from tireless Hulk smashes and clamours from Thor’s hammer. Though that didn’t stop us from flooding to the box office to witness the next installment.
The release of Thor: Ragnarok was a shot of much needed levity to the Marvel franchise however, bruised from an ambitious but overall disappointing Captain America: Civil War, and though it is naive to connect that the successes of Ragnarok had any influence on the universe follow-up, Black Panther, after post production on Ragnarok had barely begun filming, it did signal a left turn in Marvel’s cinematic journey.
Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) tells the story of T’Challa (played by an effortlessly regal Chadwick Boseman), crowned king of Wakanda following his father’s death. His sovereignty is soon challenged by a new adversary, Killmonger, who plans to abandon the country’s isolationism and initiate global revenge. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan, is equal parts terrifying and sympathetic as a maligned Wakandan descendant who was left fatherless and abandoned in Oakland, California as a child – allowing for plenty of time to foster a loathing of Wakanda and yet fantasise assuming its throne and destroying the country’s idealistic policies. Occupying a secretive existence in the world has sheltered T’Challa and his subjects to entrenched racism across the globe. You might not agree with his methods but it’s practically impossible to not understand the reason behind Killmonger’s quest.
The temptation to keep the sanctity of Wakanda’s status as a supposed ‘third world country’ (though in reality is a society transformed by the discovery of vibranium, used to develop advanced technology) , weighs heavily on T’Challa’s shoulders, and though the film falls back on Marvel’s tried and tested formula of superhero showdowns in the final third of the film, the main conflict remains whether to make Wakanda’s true status known to the world. The debate of intervention and globalisation are political and ethical decisons that we and our representatives (hopefully) grapple with at the hit of every new headline…so what to do if a history of humanitarian intervention and occupation has never existed before? Does that mean you ought to intervene in global crisis and injustice because you have the powers to do so? Is it really our place? The dilemma to reveal Wakanda’s true powers is the age-old superhero crisis of whether to come out behind the mask, writ large.
And for once, this superhero romp doesn’t dispense with its strong female characters just as the action starts. Okoye, leader of the special forces played by a powerful Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o as spy Nakia and the adorable Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s mischievous sister and very own ‘Q’, Shuri, are a breath of fresh air. The Dora Milaje, the battalion of spear-wielding women led by Gurira are a breathtaking sight, while the female characters remain integral to the story and are empowered, both physically and intellectually. They know how to use their power and wield it accordingly, and rarely for blockbusters, sex appeal is obvious but secondary to personality and skill. Neither Okoye or Nakia consider their roles and cause as anything another than the most important things in their lives and remain so, even in the film’s final act.
It would be remiss of me to not point out just how significant this film is, goodness knows there’s been plenty of think pieces about it, and rightly so. Black Panther has opened up the conversation proving that films with an African-descended casts and African (albeit fictional, though don’t tell Trump) histories are box office draws. It’s important to point out however, that these stories have always existed waiting to be told, African American lives on screen should matter, it’s just that the powers that be in Hollywood have only caught on to that fact. Even if it the mirage of dollar signs that tempted them, I’m grateful Black Panther was made. Meanwhile, Dee Rees, Ava Duvernay, Jordan Peele and the imitable Spike Lee are proving time and time again that box office and critical acclaim is in reach for black filmmakers. There’s still a long way to go to ensure that this becomes the norm, not the exception, but there is no better film than Black Panther to spearhead (pun not intended) this groundswell.