What is there to say about a film that defines a generation, succeeds against all odds, and rises up out of the ashes of all films before it to make a proud declaration: I am here, standing tall, and I will never fade away? This is the question raised by the unstoppable addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther.
Despite the generally warm reception of recent Marvel flicks, the comic-to-film series has never quite reached the heights of rivals DC Comics – Wonder Woman (2017) and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012) being the key examples. What Marvel needed was something different, something entirely un-Marvel. Something that did not stand for conventional patriotic values (looking at you, Captain America) or the benevolent solider who falls to the power of the world’s leading military forces (how can we forget the scene of Hulk folding to his knees against gunshot wounds of American military personnel reading him as a threat). No, what Marvel needed was something that spoke to people, that resonated in the hearts and souls of the viewer’s experience, and something that was unforgettable and proud in its identity.
What Marvel needed was Black Panther, a film that has resonated with a black audience. A film that spoke to black people in its dialogue, in its action, and in its lyrics (see Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther album, imbibed with a lyrical and musical declaration of celebration and love for a film that is strong, powerful and unapologetically representational of a black experience).
Yes, Black Panther is a superhero movie. It follows the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the new king of Wakanda, a fictional utopian land in the heart of Africa, as he struggles with the newfound weight of royalty and responsibility. Not only a king, T’Challa is a superhero – he is the Black Panther, the man wearing an all-black bulletproof suit that sends Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark on a marathon for their money. And, unlike other superheroes under a mask, the Black Panther does not hide his identity: T’Challa wears his superhero identity proudly. This is the first moment in which we recognise the radical nature of Black Panther, as both a character and as a film. The Black Panther, not hiding behind a Clark Kent-esque pseudonym, is exemplary of his unabashed shamelessness in everything that he is.
In the climax of the film, T’Challa, the African warrior, is faced with his greatest challenge: fighting an outsider who desperately clings to fate and his birthright. The primary antagonist in the film is Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan who was born and raised against the backdrop of a typical African-American struggle. Killmonger sees black existence as inchoate, as ultimately unprepared for the militaristic reality of the fight against him, and all people like him. Killmonger has been witness to innumerable incidences of the callous treatment of black people in his community – he comes from Oakland, California, which incidentally is the setting for director Ryan Coogler’s first feature film Fruitvale Station (2013), about the racial politics behind the true story of the brutal police killing of an unarmed black man – and has seen firsthand what it has meant to be understood as a threat and nothing more in the eyes of the white and power-hungry police force. Because of that, he stomps into Wakanda with a mission: to arm all his ‘brothers and sisters’ with weapons made from the fictional metal vibranium that fuels all technological process in Wakanda.
Killmonger is a particularly interesting antagonist, primarily because his ideological position is not at all disagreeable. The only hitch is his method. Killmonger stands tall and noble, a representation of Malcom X, who wanted nothing more than to see disenfranchised people fight their disempowerment by all means possible, whether that meant lining the streets or organising in schools. Killmonger’s conflict with T’Challa is a clear allegorical retelling of conflicting styles of leadership: the uncompromising vision of Malcolm X and the benevolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. Their fracas manages to address problems of social justice, of identity politics within global African communities, and the legacy of slavery, all through conflict between two characters fighting in superhero suits.
As a film, as an allegory and as a character, Black Panther is truly inspirational. Young black people can finally go to see a superhero who looks like them, who is strong, powerful and moral, and feel connection, history, truth and inspiration. Furthermore, Black Panther never fights alone, and his two backup fighters – resilient female warriors played by Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o – stand beside him, never behind him, showing the true strength of a superhero who can work together with mighty women as an unstoppable team.
Throughout its resonating references to the political and daily struggle of feeling both American by situation and African by birth, the film is visually stunning. It invites a phenomenological experience, and an interpretation that is both intellectual and visceral. The fight sequences, beautifully coordinated by director Ryan Coogler, are nothing short of pulchritudinous. They convey the stress and excitement that make for an invigorating spectacle that not only entertains, but fuels the plot as well. In combination with the brilliant work of the amazing cinematographer Rachel Morrison, (who recently became the first female cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar) the moments of action in Black Panther feel akin to the great work of auteur Hong-Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Each sequence is carefully shot, blocked, and edited to achieve a versatility of movement, thrill and entertainment that is not only rare in big-budget Hollywood film making, but nearly impossible to achieve in modern cinema.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2018 via image.net