Distinguished superhero film studio, Marvel, broke new grounds last February with the release of their highly anticipated movie, Black Panther, creating one of the most entertaining and thought provoking movies in recent memory.
Lead star, Chadwick Boseman, certainly has a knack for portraying the most culturally influential African American men, such as the first black Major League Baseball player, Jackie Robinson, in 42 and the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown in Get on Up, so it’s no surprise that his talents were on full display in his role of fictional African leader and hero, T’Challa, the Black Panther himself. Michael B. Jordan also stars as the lead antagonist, Erik Stevens, also known as N’Jadaka. Jordan played the lead role in Rocky sequel, Creed, as Adonis Johnson Creed, Apollo Creed’s son. Both Creed and Black Panther were directed by Ryan Coogler, who did a fantastic job of bringing Marvel’s fictional country of Wakanda to life.
At face value, Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon, being the first Marvel film with a predominantly African American cast. But, it is more than just a movie with black actors. It’s a political commentary and a discussion on equality; where Black Panther really excels is the storytelling, as it isn’t as simple as a hero against a villain. Not everybody has the same opinion on the characters, and not everybody believes that T’Challa, the hero, even has the right ideas. This is far from a bad thing, in fact it’s incredibly rare and special to find a film that makes viewers think as much as they will while they watch. With Ludwig Göransson and Kendrick Lamar providing an excellent soundtrack, Coogler found the perfect balance between tremendous cinematography, acting, and storytelling.
Setting a movie in a fictional country left Marvel lots of creative opportunity, and they took full advantage. Wakanda is simply beautiful: a big, flashy city with a touch of African culture that relies on the strongest metal on the planet, vibranium. It is only native to Wakanda, however, as a meteor rich with the element stuck the country long before the movie takes place. Vibranium is used in just about everything: weapons, technology, buildings, even Wakandans’ clothes contains the substance. The Wankandan way has always been “Wakanda first”, in other words, they don’t deal with other countries at all. In fact, the country is presented to the world as an incredibly poor country, while the real Wakanda exists through an electric portal with a border similar in design to one seen in the Hunger Games movies. While many feel that Wakanda should exist in isolation, others see vibranium as a useful tool in helping the outside world, particularly African-Americans, who see the racism and inequality that exists outside of their home and want to put a stop to it. The most important figure who has these ideas is Erik Stevens, typically regarded simply as “Killmonger.”
Killmonger’s goal is to become king of Wakanda, and also the Black Panther. The two titles are confusing. They seem directly related, but there are certain scenes that go against that logic, like how the opening scene shows T’Challa in a fight wearing the Black Panther suit, but this scene takes place before he is officially crowned king. Regardless, Killmonger will need to defeat T’Challa in a fight to achieve his titles, but he first must get to Wakanda, as he lives in America. There’s some interesting history between the two involving their parents that I won’t spoil, and you won’t fully understand it all until the film is about halfway over. T’Challa wants to uphold the traditional Wakandan way of isolationism, while Killmonger wants to use Wakanda’s natural strength over other countries to make a more perfect world (again, you’ll see what this really means when you watch the movie). This movie is incredibly loaded with content, so telling you any more of the story would spoil the movie.
Aside from a captivating story, Black Panther comes with some incredible cinematography. One of the hardest things to do in a superhero movie is to create good, fast moving action scenes. Lots of movies struggle to show the most intense moments because they want it to seem fast, but they also want to show every meaningful part of the scene. Marvel makes movies so frequently now that they’ve really learned to master showing everything that matters in action scenes without sacrificing intensity. One scene in particular takes place in a casino. T’Challa and his guards are attacked by a different villain, Klaw (played by Andy Serkis), and what makes the scene so well shot is that it’s mostly shot on just one camera. This one main camera moves up and down the two level casino smoothly capturing the fight, one that showcases both Black Panther and Klaw’s abilities. It also shows that T’Challa’s guards are highly trained warriors themselves, which sets them up for a larger fight scene later in the movie. Movies with lots of important characters often struggle to include scenes where they are all being meaningful together, but Marvel, per usual, did a great job. The use of wire cameras that switch to handheld and then back to wire really made this scene great, and moments like those are found all over the movie.
Another big part of Black Panther’s greatness comes through costumes and special effects. Costume designer, Ruth E. Carter did a great job of combining traditional African prints and styles with the modern feel of Wakanda in every character’s clothes, but she really nailed it with T’Challa’s suit. From head to toe, T’Challa looks like a menacing panther with his panther head shaped helmet, sharp retractable claws, and sleek all black color. The special effects come in when T’Challa gets hit. The energy from what hits him gets stored in the suit, and it creates a beautiful purple glow amongst the woven black outfit. Killmonger’s outfit, shown late in the movie, is also very well created, and features animal print, paying homage to traditional African culture. The Wakandan weapons are also rendered to look very modern and sophisticated. And, of course, Wakanda itself was created beautifully which, combined with the music, reinforces the ideas that it is the most advanced country in the world.
Ethan Baush has seen the movie twice. He said that while watching it the second time, he “noticed more hints toward civil rights.” He also believes that while the movie has a “good clear message”, it’s “not as good as the other [recent Marvel] movies.”
He particularly noticed the message to “spread your wealth” and “don’t be selfish.” These, of course, refer to the idea that the traditional Wakandan way was not helping anyone besides Wakandans, and it isn’t until Killmonger tries to take over that people consider it.
Black Panther had terrific fight scenes, and Ethan’s favorite came between Black Panther and Killmonger, a very special effects-heavy scene toward the end of the movie.
While he may not have liked it as much as other recent Marvel movies, he did agree that it was good, and with so many great new films to compare to, it’s reasonable that Black Panther isn’t at the top of everyone’s list.
Aside from the basic plot and the special effects of the movie, there is a lot of very real meaning to the feud between T’Challa and Killmonger. While the movie was designed around the idea of black empowerment, it isn’t as simple as one might think. The hero of the movie is a man whose (original) stance on helping end racism is to stay away from the matter, while the villain is the one who decides it’s time for it to end, albeit, through violence, not peacemaking. While Killmonger’s ideas are seen by many as crazy, how can we ignore that the white race has been in constant control of the black race for hundreds of years? When it’s said like this, Killmonger doesn’t sound as crazy as before, he actually sounds rational, in a sense. What right did the white Europeans of the past have to create the international slave trade? What really allowed them any dominance over Africans that still exists today? So, why shouldn’t Killmonger empower the black race to take over the world? Well, the reason is quite obvious, it would be racist to assume that the entirety of one race is better and more fit to be in control than another, but is that not exactly what the white race has naturally done?
This commentary is, at the end of the day, created from a Marvel movie, one that takes place in a fictional country with fictional characters. This is what makes Black Panther so good. It isn’t just the flashy colors of the uniforms, or the soundtrack by a big name rapper, or that it ties in with the rest of the Marvel movies, it’s that it stirs conversation amongst everybody, regardless of race. That is what a great movie does, it makes itself referenceable outside of the theater, it begs for you to debate it, it demands you to understand it, but it also tells a captivating original story.