Scalding Hot Takes #8: Black Panther
It’s only been in theaters for a couple of days, but Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has already transcended film to become a genuine pop culture event. With the possible exception of the Star Wars franchise, superheroes, particularly Marvel superheroes, are the biggest thing going, commercially, yet Black Panther is bigger and bolder than its comic book brethren.
Black Panther isn’t just a movie people enjoy: it’s a movie people believe in. It’s an instant blockbuster that has attained a cultural importance rare for any movie, let alone a comic book-derived superhero movie from the Marvel factory.
For example, about a month before its release, I read an adorably dorky Facebook list of a social media friend’s all-time favorite Marvel movies. Black Panther ranked number one even though the person who composed the list hadn’t seen it. This wasn’t a joke: his hunch that Black Panther would be a masterpiece was so strong that he felt like he could preemptively declare it the best Marvel movie ever made sight unseen. Needless to say, I suspect this Caucasian would have voted for Obama three times if he could.
This gentleman didn’t just want Black Panther to be good, or expect it to be good. He needed it to be good. He didn’t just need it to be good; he needed it to be the best. He’s not alone. In keeping with our hyper-divisive times (thanks, Obama!), the movie has been politicized in sometimes ridiculous ways. The hate-mongers over at Breitbart ridiculously have claimed it as their own, arguing nonsensically but provocatively, that the movie’s hero is a Donald Trump figure and its villain a stand-in for Black Lives Matter. Even more ridiculously, an easily disproven urban legend has emerged of African-American audiences beating up white people with the audacity to see a movie that’s not for them.
It’s amazing to me that anyone would fall for that particular line of horse shit. After all, Black Panther depicts the fictional African land of Wakanda as a rich, vibrant and beautiful utopia filled with smart, strong, dynamic people who treasure their independence and autonomy, who revel in their blackness.
If there was a movie that depicted Judaism the way Black Panther does African life, I would want every gentile in the world to see it so they could appreciate how awesome the Jewish people are. A Serious Man, now that is for Jews and Jews only. But we wouldn’t beat up gentiles who had the audacity to see “our” movie in theaters. Instead, we’d talk loudly in Yiddish and eat Gefilte fish out of the jar and slurp borsht until non-Jews got the message and walked out of their own accord.
I was a child in the Reagan 1980s so my first real impression of Africa came from USA for Africa, Live Aid, Band-Aid and “We Are the World.” These were, on one hand, wonderful philanthropic endeavors that raised money to help feed starving children. But they had the unintended consequence of making Africa seem like a continent exclusively occupied by starving people in desperate need of help.
Needless to say, Black Panther portrays Africa in a much different, if not antithetical light. In Black Panther, the title character’s homeland of Wakanda looks like a poor country from the outside, but is actually a techno-utopia thanks to a miraculous metal called Vibranium, a rare and incredibly powerful metal that allows the people of Wakanda to live in splendor while the rest of the world seems to be devolving into madness and chaos more and more each day.
In Black Panther, it’s Wakanda that has the resources to almost single-handedly uplift humanity and the rest of the world that is in dire need of help, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. The United States is technically a Super-Power but we need all the help we can get. And though I usually abhor the concept, we sure could use more of those super-powerful (they’re so powerful and effective you’d think they were made of Vibranium!) thoughts and prayers to help us deal with Trump’s calamitous Presidency.
Picking up where Captain America: Civil War left off, the film finds T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) taking over as the King of Wakanda after his father was killed in events depicted in the third Captain America movie. So it is with a heavy heart and deep sense of responsibility that T’Chala takes the throne.
He’s a new level of Warrior-King, a superhero and monarch in one. Every needs a villain, however, and Black Panther has a pair of doozies in Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, taking a brief break from motion capture work), a South African arms dealer, and the tellingly named Killmonger, (Michael B. Jordan, reuniting with co-writer director Ryan Coogler following Fruitvale Station and Creed), a gifted assassin and cousin of T’Challa who travels to Wakanda to challenge his relative for the throne.
On a world-building level, Black Panther is a triumph. In a cinematic comic book world where everything seems second hand, worn and exhausted Coogler’s revelatory blockbuster feels bracingly new and fresh. We’ve never seen anything quite like Wakanda onscreen before.
Black Panther is a superhero movie with an epic scope but it also gets the little details right, like having Too Short provide the soundtrack for a pivotal early scene set in Oakland in the early 1990s.
Like Thor: Ragnorak, the last Marvel movie that rocked my world, Black Panther wisely eschews the tacky, leering and often misogynistic sexuality of superhero movies for a more mature, adult sensuality. The women and men here are so breathtakingly gorgeous that they don’t need skin-tight latex or push-up bras to be absolutely stunning.
But the women of Black Panther—from Angela Bassett’s regal Ramonda (perfect casting for an actress who deserves far better than what a film business with no idea what to do with women of a certain age has been able to give her) to Lupita Nyong’s Nakia, T’Challa’s ex and a fierce spy and fighter in her own right, to Letitia Wright’s Shuri, a sort of teenaged version of James Bond’s Q and the scientific genius behind Black Panther’s suits, vehicles, weapons and gizmos—are defined as much by their strength and dignity as their beauty.
Thanks in part to Shuri, Black Panther’s fetish for killer technology (in more ways than way) feels more indebted to James Bond than Black Panther’s colleague Iron Man. Speaking of white dudes, Martin Freeman, who has quietly wracked up quite a box-office track record thanks to his roles in the Hobbit and Marvel universes, plays a fairly central role as CIA agent Everett Ross. It seems a little weird to have probably the 67th most important figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the whitest, be the big representative of the rest of the rest of the Marvel universe in such an important and groundbreaking film, but it is important for the white experience to be represented onscreen. We’ve been ignored for far too long! There will be no justice, and no peace, until we achieve full equality and Marvel puts out a White Panther movie as well.
I didn’t just love Black Panther. I kind of wanted to live in its universe. It’s a world where technology has advanced to the point that it has become a form of magic, magic the Wakandans possess and control and that the outside world would pursue with a single-minded ruthlessness that would make our obsession with oil look like a minor distraction. Wars are fought, blood is shed and lives are lost over oil. That would happen on an even greater scale if Wakanda’s secrets ever got out. Like its conflicted hero, Black Panther has a lot on its mind, but never feels clumsy or didactic. It’s a superhero movie of substance, of ideas, in a way that doesn’t undercut the visceral excitement.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Black Panther since I saw it, particularly Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Killmonger, which I would rank alongside Heath Ledger’s Joker as one of the greatest comic book villains of all-time.
Jordan and co-writer/director Ryan Coogler make Killmonger a figure of Shakespearean depth and richness, to the point where the film earns its echoes of Hamlet, with its palace intrigue. To put things in Malcolm X terms, he’s the hate that hate made, a rage-filled loner whose pain and heartbreak over his father’s death and his own exile are so profound and vividly realized that they take on an almost physical presence.
Boseman’s Black Panther is a fantastic character: strong, proud, dignified, with incredible charisma and magnetism. Yet, in the grand tradition of comic book movies, Killmonger might just be an even better, even more iconic figure.
If Killmonger’s rage leads him to want to destroy and control more than build or create, he at least comes about it honestly. There’s an element of righteousness to Killmonger’s anger, a sense that while he takes everything too far (his name is Killmonger, after all) at the core of Killmonger’s hatred and ambition lies a very legitimate grievance, both with the rulers of Wakanda and the rest of the world.
He’s been robbed of his birthright, his honor, his home, his royal heritage. The pain is so deep that it becomes all-consuming, blinding him to anything outside his own need for revenge and power. He’s intent on recreating the world in his image, by force if necessary.
A lot of superhero movies play around with provocative ideas without really engaging them on an intellectual level. That’s not true of Black Panther. Its exploration of the conflict between isolationism and globalism, nationalism and assimilation cut surprisingly deep because they emerge organically from the material and strengthen rather than detract from either the dazzling spectacle or the raw, real emotions at play.
Before I saw Black Panther, I wondered if it was possible for any film, no matter how well-conceived and timely, to live up to the massive wave of hype that has greeted its release. But Black Panther has only deepened in my mind since I’ve seen it, and I may take the ultimate step of trying to get my superhero-hating wife to see it with me.
It seems inevitable that there will be a Black Panther backlash. Pop-culture media almost demands it. It’s just too goddamn innately negative and cynical for something to go more or less universally revered. But for the time being, I’m just savoring this moment of ecstatic, more or less uniform appreciation in pop culture, because I know how rare it is and also that it cannot possibly last.
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