Warning: spoilers ahead!
Even though most of the comic book characters who have lit up the big screen were first created in the 1960s (or earlier), there’s no doubt that their cinematic recreations are reflective of our time. While dozens upon dozens of superhero movies have paraded across the screen, the ones that stick out the most have been the ones that have something to say—about society, about the world we live in, about the challenges facing us now.
For example, the first Spider-Man film came less than a year after 9/11, and felt like a direct response: no other film so captured the zeitgeist of that moment, the rallying together, the desire for union, most notably depicted when the New Yorkers join together to save Spider-Man from the Green Goblin, chanting, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” Spider-Man 2, on the other hand, perfectly captured the sense of a “fall from grace” that happened within the U.S. almost directly afterward, as the “war on terror” began: the rise of patriotism was followed by a devastating fall, with a frail economy, polarization, and constant struggle. While 2002’s Spider-Man was bright and colorful, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was murky, grey, bittersweet, and showed a Peter Parker nearly collapsing beneath the weight of bills, responsibilities, and unfulfilled dreams. Following this, the year 2008 brought us both The Dark Knight and Iron Man, two films that critically tackled the evolving views on the “war on terror.” The Avengers followed suit, re-approaching 9/11 about as directly as a superhero film possibly can (New York is devastated by an attack from the sky, people rally together against it). The Avengers put down the groundwork for the anti-corruption themes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War. Last year brought us Wonder Woman, the feminist superhero movie that the world was waiting for, and also brought us Thor: Ragnarok, which mixed slapstick humor with a biting satirical critique of colonialism. Then there’s the obvious political allegories of the X-Men films: these concepts were at their most potent in Logan, which portrays a Trumpian dystopia where mutant immigrants from Mexico flee to Canada for freedom, while the U.S. is mired in recession, automation, and corporate bureaucracy.
While most superhero movies are popular, the films listed above resonate because of how they tap into cultural fears, hopes, and dreams. As of February 16, 2018, a new film needs to be added to that list: Black Panther.
Black Panther is the sort of film that, for decades, Hollywood producers claimed would never work. It stars a black protagonist, shown as wise, commanding and noble, but also possessing human flaws like impatience, anger, and self-doubt. The director, Ryan Coogler, is black, and almost all of the supporting cast are also black. It’s set in Africa. Rather than showing the characters an an oppressed minority, it instead shows them as powerful figures, coming from a technologically advanced society that stands head and shoulders above “western” society in every way. There are no damsels in distress: most of the supporting characters are powerful women, such as Okoye and Shuri. As if that wasn’t enough, the movie is even titled “Black Panther.”
The film that Hollywood thought would “never work” is now on track to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, proving wrong everyone who ever doubted it. Contrary to all of its doubters, it seems like Black Panther is the movie people were waiting for.
Black Panther hasn’t even been out a month, but it’s already been the topic of numerous fascinating think pieces, analyzing T’Challa’s place in history. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige believes it’s the best movie they’ve ever made. Issac Bailey, writing for CNN, proclaimed that “Black Panther is for film what Barack Obama was for the presidency.” It’s been said by many that Black Panther is becoming a movement, not just a movie.
Here’s another thing: Black Panther might turn out to be the superhero movie of this era.
In recent years, the efforts of groups like Black Lives Matter have helped bring the topic of racial inequality roaring back into the headlines, forcing everyone to stand up and take notice of the widespread structural racism that still exists in the United States today. The U.S. has a particularly strange duality at play, when it comes to this matter: we’re living in an era where a black man become president of the United States, but we’re also living in an era where he was immediately followed by a white person with a sordid history of racist actions and proclamations. “Jim Crow” is a thing of the past, but systemic racism and mass incarceration are so deeply embedded into the country’s institutions (with even former slave plantations converted into prisons) that the situation has been called “the new Jim Crow.”
Obviously, as a country, and as a world, we have a lot of work to do to further the cause of true equality. But that’s the easier part to accept and realize. What’s equally critical—and what Black Panther taps into—is that society also needs to also reexamine our history, to challenge all rose-tinted views of the past, if we hope to rise into a better future.
In the film, this aspect is symbolized by the villain, Killmonger—a character whose relatable background evokes empathy from the audience, even if his means and end goal are destructive. In his introductory scene, Killmonger speaks toward the history of black oppression… which is, in turn, the history of the contemporary world. As written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the journalist for the Atlantic who has also written Marvel’s Black Panther comic book:
“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.”
The great lie of colonial history, whether it’s British colonialism or the birth of the United States, is the default presumption of virtue, the idea that everything was built fairly. Are there certain things to admire about the United States? Yes, absolutely: democracy, republicanism, the push for greater freedom, the dream of giving every person the opportunity for life and liberty. That’s what the U.S. got right (ideologically, if not in practice), and those dreams are what American citizens should feel patriotic about — but as a culture, we also have to recognize that even while the founders were pushing for these virtuous goals, the U.S. left behind women, minorities, anyone who wasn’t a European-descended male, with policies that particularly harmed both Africans and the native North American tribes, whom the very land was stolen from.
(For the record, I do think patriotism is valuable. However, jingoistic chants of “America is great,” or “get out of the country if you don’t like it” aren’t true patriotism. Just like honestly loving a person requires that you understand their flaws, I believe that true patriotism requires acknowledging the evil actions that U.S. culture and the U.S. government have perpetrated upon countless other cultures in the past, and accepting that if we truly believe in the ideals of the United States, we need to address, repair, and make reparations for the harsh reality of these past actions.)
Now, Black Panther isn’t introducing these concepts for the first time, but what’s significant is that the film is a multi-billion dollar studio tentpole, a major film that people all over the world will see, think about, and recommend. It’s tapping into a deep vein that many people out there might have never considered. Black Panther is huge, and it’s getting bigger. That’s what makes it a game changer.
Black Panther poses the notion of an African nation, Wakanda, which was never colonized. And then, contrary to every prejudiced assumption on the books, Marvel depicts this uncolonized nation as NOT being a “primitive,” culturally backward, starving country: instead, Wakanda’s separation from the colonial world has made it BETTER than every other place on the planet. It’s a nation that was able to hold onto its old traditions, while also embracing the most advanced technology on the planet, and even developing more equal social norms (particularly when it comes to women) than most “first world” nations today.
This cuts right to the heart of the “manifest destiny” myth, repudiating it. But Black Panther doesn’t stop there and rest on its laurels. Once the movie has shown how amazing Wakanda is, it then uses the character of Killmonger to challenge the nation’s isolationism, further widening the film’s scope. Killmonger believes that Wakanda is responsible for the suffering of people around the world, because of its closed borders.
And here’s the rub: the villain is right, on some level. Sure, Killmonger’s end goal is wrong, as proliferating high-tech weapons around the world is never good for anyone, but the essence of his beliefs—that the great nation’s isolationism makes it guilty for the wrongs that happen across the world—is accurate, and over the course of the film, T’challa comes around to this point of view.
The final battle between T’Challa and Killmonger depicts both characters calling out one another’s hypocrisies. Killmonger tells T’Challa that by hiding in the shadows for centuries, Wakanda is complicit in the wrongdoings perpetrated over the course of history. T’Challa finally agrees with this, but argues—also correctly—that Killmonger’s desire for violent supremacy has made him into everything he hates.
As a film, and as a story, the depth of this conclusion is fantastic. T’Challa “wins” against Killmonger’s violence, but Killmonger also “wins” the battle of ideologies, convincing the hero of what he (or rather, his nation) has been doing wrong.
By the end, T’Challa learns from the mistakes of his father, and knows that Wakanda can no longer remain distant from the concerns of the world. Now, he must get involved. This is most explicitly stated by T’Challa himself in the film’s mid-credit sequence, set in the United Nations, which is easily one of the most political scenes in any Marvel movie to date:
“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
And so, T’Challa opens his nation to the world, brings Wakanda’s knowledge to those who need it, and offers help and guidance to everyone else who is struggling. He doesn’t do this naively. After Killmonger’s attack, he knows the risks. Opening Wakanda up to the world means the possibility of invasions, theft… you know, all the stuff that a Black Panther sequel will probably deal with.
But in an increasingly globalized world, isolationism is not only wrong, but also dated and ineffective. Just as our real world is now menaced by threats beyond our easy comprehension—I.E., climate change, nuclear weapons, overpopulation, et cetera—the Earth of the Marvel Universe is now menaced by alien invasions, Infinity Stones, and lots of cosmic craziness that could wipe it off the map. If the Earth wants to survive, all of its nations must come together.
To summarize, I have to acknowledge that as a white male, I can’t speak on behalf of other cultures, or what this movie might mean to other people from different backgrounds: I can only offer a series of assumptions, from my own privileged position. However, I don’t want to close this essay on my thoughts, because when it comes to Black Panther, there are other voices that are more important than mine. The film definitely moved me, but I’m not the audience whom it will have the biggest impact on.
That audience, the one that matters the most here, are the black youth of today, and they deserve to be heard. Writing for the New York Times, Kevin Nobel Maillard invited a group of seventh graders to a Black Panther showing, and recorded their responses. Here are a few:
“The film makes me want to start my own tribe and make my own inventions to help the world. It also makes me want to make my own Panther outfit.” – Gabriela Myles
“To see a black person control a whole country and creating all this technology made me feel I can do more with my brain.” – Jaheim Hedge
“Black Panther will show people of the world how much more people of color can do.” – Scottia Coy