“Black Panther” fulfills its much-anticipated promise. After nine months of publicity and hype, an eager mass movement packed movie houses worldwide. According to the L.A. Times, the film shattered ticket sales records for the four-day February weekend with $235 million. It was fifth highest total ever for a domestic opening weekend surpassed only by “Jurassic World,” “Marvel’s the Avengers,” and two “Star Wars” movies.
Even so, viewers walk away from this film moved in unique ways that might surprise them. The story of prince T’Challa’s return to become the new Black Panther king of Wakanda , an African nation that had avoided conquest and corruption from the outside world, paints an optimistic picture of a culture at the peak of technological achievement and morality.
“Black Panther” features the first recent black solo superhero lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a superb cast of mostly black actors directed by African-American Oakland native Ryan Coogler. Beside the protective male hero stand a circle of strong supporting women with key multi-faceted roles, introducing a lively matriarchal culture. Conscience of racial oppression in the outside world comes up through characters who think Wakanda should end its traditional isolationist policy and use its wealth for humanitarian aid. Viewers and critics can measure Coogler’s success by how well he grounded the social themes into the Marvel superhero network context.
We’ve seen the car chase preview trailers; we expect violence and hi-tech weapons. We get this obligatory excitement without being overwhelmed by it.
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, the iconic Black Panther hero, earns respect the hard way. He respects the isolationist tradition because that’s how Wakanda had safely achieved its height, but he carefully listens to those promoting humanitarian responsibility. The first to speak so to him was his ex-lover, now close friend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). T’Challa listens, radiating confidence empowered by compassion, carrying himself with understated soulful authority needing few words. The wise, tech-savvy ruler laughs easily, but speaks carefully with a soft melodic tribal accent. The Black Panther superhero brand of nobility wins utmost admiration.
T’Challa’s little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) the tech-genius, updated BP’s sleek black cat suit. She also designed other wonders made out of “vibranium,” the precious metal that first came to Wakanda when a giant meteor struck the land eons ago. She used it to come up with the various communication gadgets and sonic transportation devices we see throughout the movie. Shuri charms T’Challa and viewers with refreshing youthful humor and wit. Her tiny devices that pop images of live speaking people into thin air render computer screens obsolete. Smart and attractive, Black Panther’s bright sister sidekick projects a hip role model to young woman around the world.
Black Panther and the Wakanda/vibranium mythology evolved in comic books dating to 1966. The energy absorbing element, also the hardest metal on earth, became the guarded secret and source of Wakanda’s technological advancement and wealth. It might be considered grace from gods, of symbolic of worldly power, much cleaner than nukes, oil and petro dollars.
The Wakandan king by tradition drinks a mystical “heart shaped herb” concoction, giving him the strength of many men. Wearing the protective vibranium mesh suit, he becomes invincible. But in two scenes where T’Challa faces ceremonial challenges to his throne, the elder statesman Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Wakanda, strips his power with a potion reducing T’Challa to fight as a common man. He takes hard hits, so many in the second challenge that it’s hard to watch. His royal mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and the Dora Milaje, the king’s always-ready group of bald female body guards, spill agonizing tears, helplessly gaping at the chief villain in awe, disbelief and denial. Viewers share an experience of dislocating limbo, not knowing the fate of the king and kingdom.
Once the word leaked out, vibranium’s potential attracts villains like Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and Erik Killmonger (Michal B. Jordan). With a chilling charismatic presence, Killmonger could be the most convincing villain to barge into the MCU. Unstoppable in almost justifiable fervor, he seeks to avenge his father’s murder, and with wild rebel intent, to violently liberate the world’s oppressed people. He almost takes it all. From here he gets a vote for best performance.
Killmonger sought to disperse the secret wealth guarded by the high African civilization, intentionally isolated in hiding beneath a front of third world poverty. Viewers get an inspiring idealistic vision of this culture, including exhilarating music mixing archetypal African drums to post-millennial hip-hop tracks, a colorful variety of classical and sleek modern costumes, the sci-fi hi-tech fantasy, visits to the ancestral astral plane, and breath-taking African scenery.
History indicates the Oakland-based militant activist Black Panthers agreed on their name about a month after the writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby released a Fantastic Four series comic book “introducing the fantastic Black Panther” in July of 1966. There’s no evidence of any connection or relation, but was a hardened social activist secretly reading comic books? Local comic book guru Bret White, owner of Heroes Haven Comics in downtown Roseberg said that it’s written off as a coincidence, an auspicious one, “as such coincidences often are.”
After an animated introduction to Wakanda, parallel to scenes of slave ships and world wars, “Black Panther” opens in 1992 Oakland, CA inspired by the producer/co-writer’s roots. We’re greeted by boys playing hoop with a makeshift milk crate basket. In the hi-rise apartment building above the playground, two black radicals with guns make plans. Images of L.A. riots flash on a TV screen. The thematic resonance of the radical Oakland based Black Panthers seems clear.
The men hear a knock on the door. Looking through the peep hole one says, “Two Grace Jones-looking chicks, with spears!” the members of the Wakandan Dora Milage precede the only appearance of T’Challa’s father, the previous Black Panther king T’Chaka. He came in to confront his brother N’Jobu, who had betrayed an espionage mission. Prince N’Jobu, was dismayed by the poverty and oppression he saw, sought to dispel it, and thought Wakanda’s isolation policy was wrong. He had enabled the movie’s first and less formidable villain, Ulysses Klaue, to infiltrate Wakanda and steal a load of vibranium for use in revolutionary efforts. Black Panther superheroes do not espouse such tactics. After N’Jobu pulled a gun on him, T’Chaka squeezed his brother’s heart with his Panther claws, a fateful resonant event.
Comic store owner White said Black Panther was the “coolest superhero” in his last appearance in the 2016 MCU production of Captain America: Civil War, because he acts independently with his own agenda for his people and the common good. T’Chaka died from a bomb blast in that episode, setting up the return of the current Black Panther.
T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia go to Busan, South Korean attempting to intercept the sale of a piece of Vibranium carried by Klaue to agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). The pivotal meeting of these two Anglo male characters in the movie split them into bad and good white guy categories by surprise.
Ross takes a bullet in the back to save Nakia’s life. Instead of going after Klaue T’Challa decides to save Ross’s life by bringing him back to Wakanda, letting Klaue slip away. T’Challa had given word to his best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that he would bring Klaue back. His failure loses W’Kabi’s trust, creating dissonance, adding moral complexity.
Ross wakes up in Wakanda to meet Shuri and asks how long he’d been there. “Bullet wounds don’t heal overnight,” he said.
“Here they do,” Shuri responded, “but not by magic, with technology.”
Ross stays. The token minority white guy helps the Wakandans, who embrace him.
Wesley Snipes wished to make a similar Black Panther film in the 1990’s. A difficulty he faced was the radical stigma of the words “Black Panther.” Time seems to have fuzzed that memory. The movie’s narrative assumes the prevailing view that dispels violent revolutionary tactics for social change, with the radical Panthers subtly acknowledged in that context. Those still sitting on the far left might say that Disney and Marvel has capitalized on and co-opted the ideas about black activism for profit. A mild challenge has come from Change.org’s petition demanding that 25% of Marvel studio’s profits from the film be invested into black communities.
Most commentators agree that the success of this enchanting, ethnic and socially charged production should stimulate more efforts in positive direction. The success of “Black Panther” raises the standard, where viewers expect more than just thrills. “Black Panther” elevates superhero mythology into archetypes meaningful to our times.