Afrofuturist epic takes superheroics in a fresh direction
Black Panther (2018)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
With its multiple-
Based on the late-’60s comic book character from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Black Panther arrives somewhat late to the Marvel Cinematic Universe—but with what seems like perfect timing. Following up on his introduction in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther follows Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman from biopics 42 and Get On Up) back to his African homeland of Wakanda after the assassination of his father, T’Chaka (John Kani). Wisely, writer-director Ryan Coogler (snapped up by Disney/Marvel after the success of his indie success story Fruitvale Station and his canny Rocky reboot Creed) forgoes the standard-issue origin story. T’Challa is not only the heir apparent to Wakanda but also its latest in a long line of superpowered guardians, the animal-masked warrior/
The bulk of this epic, Shakespearean take on superheroes revolves around T’Challa’s quest to assume the throne of Wakanda. What seems like a cut-and-dried case of pomp and circumstance is soon complicated by a challenger (Winston Duke from “Person of Interest” as the leader of Wakanda’s rival White Gorilla cult), a bad guy with a sonic claw (famed CGI actor Andy Serkis, making a rare physical appearance) and a full-fledged royal usurper (Michael B. Jordan from Creed and—let’s please forget—Josh Trank’s abortive Fantastic Four reboot). The result is something along the lines of—believe it or not—“Game of Thrones” crossed with Tron.
That might seem like an odd combination for a superhero movie, but Marvel has excelled over the years at turning its various comic book franchises into some wildly diverse film properties. The ’70s-style conspiracy thriller that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier couldn’t be more far removed in look and feel from the cynically comic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet they exist comfortably in the same universe. Black Panther stakes out its own unique territory in the MCU, mixing the royal backstabbing and intrigue of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones” with the impossibly high-tech, glowing bodysuit action of Disney’s Tron.
Coogler has aligned himself with a veritable army of costume designers, set decorators, CGI artists and prop builders to envision the world of Wakanda. It’s an Afrofuturist wonderland that would read like fantasy if it weren’t so wedded to the realm of science. Seems that thousands of years ago, a meteorite composed of pure vibranium crashed into the heart of Africa. Wakanda was founded atop that mound of priceless and powerful metal. In the generations since, Wakanda has built itself into a high-tech paradise. Incredibly advanced—socially, spiritually and technologically—the nation has, nevertheless, shut itself off from the rest of the world. It pretends to be an impoverished nation of farmers, hiding its towering cities and flying cars behind an invisible and impenetrable barricade.
It would seem, then, that only an internal threat could bring down Wakanda. That threat comes in the form of Erik Killmonger (Jordan), a ruthless American special forces soldier who turns out to be T’Challa’s long-lost cousin. Upon ascending the throne, T’Challa takes on the many heavy burdens his father left behind—not the least of which is Killmonger, who has vowed righteous revenge on the country that abandoned him. Thanks to Jordan’s forceful performance, Killmonger emerges as one of the best realized, most justified “bad guys” in superhero history.
Certain viewers might feel Black Panther is somewhat removed from the standard costumed heroics of other superhero films. There is, after all, no supervillain trying to destroy the world here. But that’s sort of the point. For years pundits have been predicting audiences are on the verge of suffering from “superhero fatigue.” But if comic book movies can offer this much diversity in tone, in visuals, in storyline, then there’s no reason for burnout in the genre. (Seriously, DC/Warner Bros. Pay some friggin’ attention to the competition.)
Black Panther is an absolute wonder to behold on the big screen. It looks like nothing anyone has ever seen before. Since the ’90s Afrofuturism has become something of a buzzword for the growing subgenre of African speculative fiction. But even devoted fans of that movement haven’t beheld anything approaching the size, scope, budget and reach of Black Panther. It’s a watershed moment for black culture. No doubt about it. This is the first Marvel movie that seems worthy of strong Oscar consideration—at the very least for its gorgeously realized costumes and wonderfully conceptualized production design.
There are those, of course, for whom this moment feels alien and uncomfortable. Let’s acknowledge these straight-up xenophobes and wonder at their lack of understanding, empathy, adventure and curiosity. As a comic-book-loving suburban white kid, I grew up dreaming about seeing movies with heroes such as Captain America and The Avengers. My wishes have come true in spectacular fashion. I’m ecstatic that African-American kids are currently having that moment of joy and representation. And I, for one, don’t feel left out of the celebration at all. Sure, Black Panther looks different than anything else I’ve seen on the big screen. But that’s one of the things that’s great about it. It’s a privilege to be witness to something so fresh, self-confidant and culturally significant. Heck, nobody complained about Guardians of the Galaxy being alien and uncomfortable. And it only had one Earthling in it! Why should a movie set in Africa—even a fanciful realm like Wakanda—be at all alienating? Answer: It shouldn’t be. And it isn’t. It’s thrillingly alive, vibrantly realized and unusually earnest. Welcome to the new Age of Heroes.