I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Wakanda forever!” It’s patriotic sentiment, a battle cry for warriors, and maybe it would be the slogan of Wakanda’s tourism board if it welcomed visitors.
The small nation of Wakanda is a protected valley enclave in east Africa, hidden from outside eyes by some very advanced technology fueled by the alien metal vibranium, which arrived via asteroid millennia ago. As Prince T’Challa — whom we last saw in Captain America: Civil War as superpowered Black Panther — arrives home for his coronation as Wakanda’s new king, he sighs with joy: “This never gets old.” He means the descent by air — in a supersleek Wakandan vehicle that looks like a UFO of our geekiest dreams — through a false rainforest canopy and down among the skyline of the nation’s central city. If T’Challa still gets a thrill every time he sees what is to him a familiar sight, well, we’re seeing it for the first time… and, my fellow nerds, let me tell you: I cried. The rest of the planet believes Wakanda to be a backward country of subsistence farmers, but it is the most advanced nation on Earth. That beautiful skyline, an architectural wonder of uniquely African design, is but the first taste of Black Panther’s gorgeous vision of what humanity might achieve, a society dedicated to science and progress, to peace and equality. And the fictional, fantastical Wakanda is also a harsh condemnation of reality: Imagine if we hadn’t fucked up Africa. Imagine if Africa hadn’t been subjected to brutal colonialism, its resources and even its people stolen and exploited for the profit of others. How much have we lost? How much human potential has been squandered? How can you not cry at the thought of that?
Comic books are often power fantasies, and Black Panther is the biggest, boldest one yet to make the transition to movies. This is a pulp-fiction dream to move and inspire not merely lonely or unappreciated individuals but entire cultures, entire peoples. I know that I, as a white person, cannot truly imagine what it must be like to be a black person looking at Black Panther and feeling the pride and possibility that it represents… but I think I feel some of that. I’m not a black woman who doesn’t get many opportunities to see women who look like me onscreen… but I sure as hell do love how many awesome black women characters populate Black Panther, as warriors, scientists, spies, and queens. I’m not trying to claim representation that is not mine as my own, or anything like that. I just mean this: Black people have had to try to see themselves in movies about white people since forever, if they wanted to take any entertainment from most movies, that is. The least we white people can do is return the favor.
It’s not like that’s at all difficult with Black Panther! This is a profoundly, powerfully badass exploration of all the things we love comic book stories for. As T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman: Gods of Egypt, Get on Up) takes up the mantle of leadership of his people, he makes discoveries about his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani: The Ghost and the Darkness) — he was killed in a terrorist attack at the end of Civil War but is seen in flashbacks and in visions of the afterlife — and about his family that involve secrets and betrayals and abandonments. It’s all positively Shakespearean. The personal challenge and upset that come with all of that are connected to the dilemmas T’Challa is facing now that Wakanda has taken an inadvertent step onto the world stage after having kept itself isolated for so long. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Jungle Book), spy and foreign operative for Wakanda whom T’Challa is in love with, is eager to use the nation’s resources to help their African brothers and sisters, in Africa and beyond; our introduction to her comes in a sequence in which she rescues girls who have been kidnapped by, the film suggests but doesn’t make explicit, Boko Haram. But T’Challa’s friend and confidante W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya: Get Out, Sicario) worries about Wakanda being overrun with refugees, who would bring big problems and discord with them, if they were to open their borders and let their wealth and capabilities be widely known. In the middle is T’Challa’s genius little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright: The Commuter, Urban Hymn), who is responsible for much of Wakanda’s high tech, including his newly more powerful Black Panther suit; she doesn’t seem to have much in the way of political opinions, but her toys are what make possible much of what Wakanda has to offer the world.
This is all classic comic-book stuff, about how to take on oppressors without becoming an oppressor yourself, about monsters of our own creation, about the ultimate quandary over great power and the great responsibility that comes with it. This dilemma began to be played out on the world stage in Civil War, as the Avengers lined up on either side of an authoritarian divide about whether superpowered individuals should submit to government control, or not. But Black Panther ups the ante tremendously: Here is an entire government, an entire nation that is superpowered, thanks to the literal mountain of vibranium it is sitting atop, and isn’t quite sure what being responsible with it means yet. There are so many ways in which this movie qualifies as like nothing we’ve ever seen before in the genre (and outside it, too), all of which are functions of the widening of perspective it represents, but this is a really important one: it ponders questions of responsibility on a collective cultural level, not just an individual one. How do we use our shared power responsibly for everyone’s benefit? As the world gets smaller, and as our ability to damage the planet for everyone comes into increasingly sharper focus, this is not an idle worry. And, alas, we do not have a benevolent Wakanda to help us.
I would suggest that anyone who thinks politics doesn’t belong in comic books has willfully blinded himself to what comic books have been about since the beginning. But you can still ignore everything else about Black Panther and just enjoy it as spectacle. Director Ryan Coogler, who wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole, has made only two much smaller movies before — Fruitvale Station and Creed, both terrific — and had given us no indication that he could handle action fantasy like this… and he does a magnificent job. At its heart, Black Panther has a fairly standard comic book sort of story: baddie Ulysses Klaue (a rare live-action Andy Serkis: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes), one of the few outsiders who knows the secrets of Wakanda, and who had stolen a small quantity of vibranium decades ago, is up to no good again, with a scary dude nicknamed Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan: Fantastic Four, and both of Coogler’s previous films) at his side; they must be stopped by T’Challa, Nakia, and the absolute force of nature General Okoye (Danai Gurira), with an assist from CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Sherlock). Their first big punchup, at a secret casino nightclub in Busan, South Korea, is, well, a marvel of thrillingly dynamic action, a stunningly choreographed, seemingly uncut sequence that ranges all over a big space on multiple physical levels. And the movie only gets more viscerally exciting from there, full of cool science fiction ideas that translate into fresh and clever visual delights, such as how the Black Panther suit sucks up the kinetic energy it receives — like from a bullet — to throw back out later, with memorable results.
But of course part of what makes even the spectacle of Black Panther so special and so different are the characters and the places we haven’t seen much of onscreen before. Diversity isn’t a gimmick: it’s a no-brainer way to tell new kind of stories. We’ve had more than enough superhero movies set in New York or fictionalized versions of other American cities, more than enough action movies set in London or Los Angeles, more than enough fantasies that draw on European mythologies. It’s exhilarating to get a movie this deeply resonant, this deeply humanist, this deeply universal that springs from another culture and another tradition. (Black Panther is amazingly Western-uncentric; apart from a brief scene in a London museum, the rest of the film takes place in Africa and Asia.) As T’Challa himself says here, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges.” (That’s a Nigerian proverb, though here perhaps masquerading as a Wakandan one.) This Black Panther is, we can hope, a bridge to a wide open new country of African-inspired mainstream movie storytelling.