Whether you’re in the love-it or hate-it camp, it can’t be denied that Black Panther has been phenomenally successful. It is the story of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), first seen in Captain America: Civil War (2016), recounting how he ascends to the throne of the African nation Wakanda, and how he must use his authority to overcome an outsider who challenges his kingship. Director Ryan Coogler has deliberately set the story within the Marvel vicinity but distanced it enough so that all the power-politics, international relations and personal stories can be seen in their own right.
Black Panther is certainly problematic. This is well known, given the amount of debate that is has generated in the short period since its release. And although I am fully under-qualified to write a piece on a film dealing with such delicate issues of race (and still somewhat undecided as to my view of the film overall), Black Panther has been generating so many different readings that a comment must be made about how the film treats its subject.
In 1963, James Baldwin published a collection of letters called ‘The Fire Next Time’. In this groundbreaking, deeply personal text, he states the following manifesto: ‘In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation — if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity our maturity, as men and women.’
It is this view, 55 years later, which has finally manifested itself into a Marvel instalment with an almost exclusively black cast. Amid the extremely pervasive media coverage of everything related to ethnic identities in recent years — Barack Obama’s Presidency, Black Lives Matter, #OscarsSoWhite, the list goes on — it seems remarkable, suggests the New Yorker, that a film such as this, with an almost exclusively black cast, levelled with the rest of the Marvel universe, is ‘so woefully exceptional’.
Many political points have been made about the film’s construction of the black identity, of the preconceptions of Africa, and of the distribution of gender roles in the film — and these are very important. Yet there remains a lot to be said about the film as a construction of a narrative. At just over two hours, it is largely what you’d expect of a Marvel film: all Tony Stark’s tech meets Captain America’s will to do good; Thor’s machismo bravado meets Hulk’s deep-set anger issues. Yet Prince T’Challa is not the same as his superhero counterparts. He brings a new set of ideas about kingship and heroism to the Marvel universe.
It may be said that T’Challa doesn’t really seem to grow into much of a king — he already knows it’s who he is, but in spite of his pride, he encounters a few hiccups along the way. Rather controversially, it might be easier to see N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan) as more of a hero. Not for his genocidal sentiments, but for his unfair treatment. After all, he is the one facing abandonment issues — isn’t he to be treated with sympathy? While we’ve seen this formula put into play in The Lion King, no less, the connection between fathers and sons drives the motivations of the characters in a way that exposes their fundamental need for acceptance, security and significance.
Many of the film’s stars were excellent — Rising Star winner Daniel Kaluuya’s performance was particularly noteworthy, as was Forest Whitaker’s, playing the elusive Zuri. Letitia Wright was an audience favourite: she was excellent as Shuri, T’Challa’s charismatic (and irreverent) younger sister, who makes fantastically loaded comments – “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” A clichéd but noteworthy sequence involved T’Challa’s tribe imploring the isolated mountain kingdom to come to their aid: it pointed to Marvel’s ideology of collectivism and shows that the forces that unite are more powerful than those which divide us.
The CGI was good, and many of the landscapes and cities visited were plausibly immersive. The first view we get of Wakanda seems to be one of a prelapsarian Africa, and the metropolis that hides beneath the undergrowth rivals something from a Fritz Lang movie. The South Korea sequence was enjoyable to watch, involving the spectator in an exotic yet advanced world, an echo of Wakanda — and of course, it’s where Martin Freeman tags along for the ride. He and Andy Serkis, reunited after their Hobbit encounter, gave convincing performances but never detracted from the main events.
While it might be criticised somewhat for its lack of imagination and formulaic plot, it was a welcome change from the usual Marvel exploits, exchanging big-budget explosions with a battle scene involving very few automatic weapons. The music too was a neat combination of orchestral scoring, infectious tribal cross-rhythms and hip-hop, which fitted in with the settings of Oakland, California (Coogler’s childhood home) and Wakanda. Perhaps this adds to the film’s universal appeal. After all, it has raked in nearly $218m to date, in one of the most profitable opening weekends of all time.
This may be due to its decision to offer a completely new type of hero to the Marvel universe while staying faithful to the tropes of the superhero movie. It isn’t perfect, but it aims to show that we are not the same as our ancestors, or even our parents – we must find a path for ourselves as individuals. It might use excessive violence to get there, and it might even be seen as reductionist in some of its portraits of race, but for a Marvel film, it makes unusually important comments on the way in which we view ideas of heroism, kingship, and identity.
Black Panther is in cinemas now.