Black Panther: Another World, by Tyler Smith
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe behemoth, and one that, it turns out, was desperately needed. When doing what the Marvel films have been doing – putting out a number of seemingly-disparate films that are all part of the same universe – few things are more important than world-building. Or, to be more precise, world-expanding. In the past two years, we’ve been all around the galaxy and a few select places here on Earth. We’ve followed Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and all the rest as they’ve struggled to maintain world peace, mostly from their home base of New York City. But what about the rest of the world? What is it like to live in the MCU, but be adjacent to the action? That, among a few other key things, is what Coogler and his able cast and crew, set out to answer, with mild success.
The story picks up right where Captain America: Civil War leaves off, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becoming king of African nation Wakanda after the assassination of his father. As he rises to power, we are introduced to his kingdom; a technologically-advanced civilization that hides itself from the world. In a brief introduction, we are told that Wakanda benefits from being located atop a huge supply of vibranium, a mystical substance that fell to earth from outer space. By mining and developing this substance, Wakanda enjoys space-age vehicles, otherworldly weapons, and astonishing medical breakthroughs. It is only when T’Challa’s reign is threatened by his long lost cousin, Erik, that the country’s bountiful assets begin to be seen as liabilities. Erik plans to use the vibranium weapons to start a worldwide racial revolution, the bloodier, the better.
As I write all this out, I realize just how much ground this film has to cover. Along with introducing us to the mythology of Wakanda, it must also incorporate the royal customs of the king, the stunning technology, and complex story developments, all while giving us a new slate of developed characters. Given all that, Coogler can be forgiven for letting a few things fall through the cracks, perhaps the most glaring of these being the character of T’Challa himself.
Chadwick Boseman ably plays the character, but it’s hard to know what exactly drives T’Challa. He seems to have moments of self doubt, but also bold confidence in his ability to rule. These two contradictory elements would be fine, if inner conflict were what the character was all about, but it doesn’t seem to be. Instead, we get a mostly-bland, vaguely-defined character that, while likable and easy to root for, leaves us mostly stranded, groping for any well-conceived personality to hold onto.
Thankfully, in the film’s supporting cast, we’re on more stable ground. Dependable actors like Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o, and Martin Freeman all help to fill in the details of this world, sometimes with a wink and sometimes through deadly seriousness. It’s rare to see an ensemble that so completely understand the tone the filmmaker is going for and are able to achieve it as one unit.
Specific mention should be made of Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s sister and the country’s resident inventor. Wright serves as a sort of comic relief, while still maintaining an air of respectability. She, too, after all, is a member of the royal family, and her occasional petulance is mixed with an inherent understanding of the stakes of every decision made by her brother.
One area in which the film excels is in its villains. Many people, myself included, have called out the MCU’s “villain problem”, in which the heavies are generic in their gimmicks and even more so in their motivations. More than fifteen films have yielded only a handful of memorable villains, which is not a great batting average. Thankfully, Black Panther gives us two. The first, previously introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a glib arms dealer who exudes casual menace and tremendous charm. The second is Erik (delightfully nicknamed Killmonger), played with palpable hatred by Michael B. Jordan. Erik has spent his life plotting against the family that abandoned him, and we see the relish with which he exacts his revenge. Along with his personal vendettas, Erik also sees injustice around the world for black people, and plans to use Wakandan technology to liberate them and turn the tables on their oppressors.
I know for a fact, being a conservative as I am, that there are some that will hear that and roll their eyes, frustrated at yet another film that injects politics into its story. However, this kind of militant attitude by Erik is nothing new to comic book films. In fact, it very much mirrors the philosophies of X-Men‘s Magneto, whose plans for world domination have less to do with personal ambition and much more with trying to right the wrongs of the past, often with catastrophic results. The juxtaposition of Charles Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men comics was always meant to evoke the philosophical differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, both striving for the goal of equality, but through very different methods, and Erik’s mindset evokes this struggle nicely.
Coogler’s incorporation of these themes into his film not only specifies his villain, but also deepens the film’s purpose, while also connecting it thematically with other films in the MCU. A number of villains in this franchise have come about due to negligence or genuine wrongdoing of our heroes, who then must try to correct their mistakes, hopefully while trying to learn from them. Villains like Loki, Baron Zemo, Ultron, and Hela (from last year’s Thor: Ragnarok) have been hurt or cast out by “respectable” society and are simply looking for the chance to pay their tormentors back. Erik’s story fits into this tradition perfectly, and the film is all the better for it.
As for the filmmaking, it is distinct enough from the other films in the franchise so as to register as its own unique entity. Ludwig Goransson’s music feels appropriately exotic, while never quite tipping into patronizingly-tribal. The art direction fuses together traditional African sensibilities with futuristic technology into something that feels wholly new. And, unsurprisingly, Coogler’s ability to direct action elevates what would seem like standard set pieces into virtuosic showcases. There are elements early in the film that suggest that Coogler could have a very successful action career ahead of him, perhaps within the James Bond or Mission: Impossible franchises.
Overall, Black Panther is a pleasurable watch, made more engaging by certain thematic elements. There are several loose threads within the story, which would be a bit less noticeable if our lead character had a stronger sense of purpose and presence. But it adds to the larger Marvel universe, suggesting that everybody on Earth is invested in the events of these films, and are, like those of us in the real world, trying to figure out what they can do to contribute. Besides being a worthy entry in the franchise, it is an important one, because it not only expands the cinematic world that we’re familiar with, but it suggests the one we’re not. And for a film all about the wounded and marginalized, getting the audience to consider those that it may have dismissed or forgotten about is vital.