[Lots of spoilers]
Why Black Panthers Matter
Anyone that follows the Marvel Cinematic Universe knows that since it's inception in 2008 it has tended to avoid weighty issues that would be termed "political" in any meaningful sense.
What writer/director Ryan Coogler has done is nothing short of completely redefining the MCU by making the Black Panther its most preeminent hero with what might end up being the most successful movie yet made to carry the Marvel logo. Marvel studios didn't order a political polemic but that's what they ended up with, a political polemic so subtle that on the surface Black Panther seems like just another big budget superhero film, but lurking just under that surface is a powerful narrative in its own way every bit as potent as anything Spike Lee ever committed to film.
Black Panther takes place in the fictional nation of Wakanda, a nation hidden from the outside world much the same way Wonder Woman's paradise island of Themyscira was but with a twist:
Wakanda exists not by being invisible but by perpetuating the outside world's belief that Wakanda is actually a Third World failed state. Thus insuring that it remains unspoiled by foreign interests. That Wakanda is protected by the very ignorance fostered by racism and cultural ignorance is one of the more subtle ironies in the film. In effect Wakanda is a nation unspoiled by European and Asian slave traders, colonizers or Monotheism. Visually Wakanda is more impressive than Thor's Asgard. It is an inwardly looking utopia that has guarded it's secrets for millennia, the most significant of which is the presence of the world's largest Vibranium mine, allowing the Wakandans military to arm their soldiers with weapons more formidable than anything Tony Stark ever came up with on his best day.
The story is layered without being convoluted and carries on the long tradition in superhero yarns of a title character dealing with father issues. We've seen this trope time and again with Superman, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Plastic Man, Cyclops, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter and what is most surprising is how the film makers manage to avoid sinking into clichés. T'Challa, who lost his father in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, is now about to become the rightful (Martin Luther) King of Wakanda. It is clear that he doesn't feel ready to face such a burden. He blames himself for not being able to save his father. Chadwick Boseman brings a sensitivity and a gravitas to T'Challa that cannot be denied. He's both the wounded son and the strong man of responsibility more than up the task of shouldering a demanding position of leadership. There is a dignity and a calm about T'Challa that at times evokes no less than Barack Obama, but unlike Captain America or Batman he is also capable of warmth and humor...
And this is the difference between having a family and not. T'Challa is the first superhero ever seen on screen to be flipped the bird by his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and not with malice but with the same underlying affection one expects from siblings that have known each other all their lives.
I won't go too deeply into the plot of Black Panther but it's worth pointing out that the rise of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, the villain of the piece that eventually steals the throne from T'Challa, has been read by some to mean a variety of things that need to be addressed. Is he Malcolm X?
Not from what I can see.
Killmonger's plan really isn't all that different from Loki's in the very first Avengers film:
Use a high tech army to fan out and eventually take over the planet. Anyone that knows anything about the late Malcolm X knows that he was nothing like that and would never have supported such an idea. One online reviewer said they saw Killmonger as a clear reference to Donald Trump, which I don't see at all. I do think that the one weakness Wakanda has as a nation is how they choose their leadership, and that N'Jadaka (Killmonger) exploits that to become king could certainly be read as a warning to Americans about Russian meddling in our electoral process and where it can lead.
Was such a reading intended?
Probably not, but it isn't possible to view Black Panther without seeing it in light of the current political climate. When Killmonger is ultimately defeated, there is no joy in it. His death is a tragedy felt as much by T'Challa as by the audience.
As to the question "Why does Black Panther matter?"
The answer is "How could it not?"
The most basic ugly assumption of racism and white supremacy has always been black inferiority. The logical conclusion of this belief is that black people cannot be "super" because they can't even be equal to Caucasians. This is why the birther movement gained so much velocity when Trump was peddling it to Faux News and conservative talk radio. The very idea of Barack Obama, a Harvard educated African-American becoming president fair and square was too much for the alt-right, so they labored and still labor to treat Barack Obama not as a legitimate leader and an integral part of American history, but as a mistake...an aberration which they have fought tirelessly to expunge. This is a pattern that can be traced back to Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), this constant struggle of African-Americans having to "prove" themselves over and over only to be told by whites "not good enough". In the realm of pop-culture now comes Black Panther...an African superhero with the strength of Captain America, the intellect of Batman and enough resources to buy and sell Tony Stark 10 times over. At the same time T'Challa isn't an over-powered punchline like Deadpool which might have been the case in the hands of lesser film makers. It is both love of family and his deep abiding sense of duty that really defines him...not merely the costume or what it's made from.
If you've not yet seen this film, do so.
Rocketed from the doomed planet Oklahoma, Daniel landed in California and discovered that under a yellow sun he was granted the powers of sarcasm, brevity, skepticism and critical thinking.
He lives in his Fortress of Solitude with his son, girlfriend, and lousy WiFi connection monitoring the culture and reading Nietzsche. When not writing, he runs The 37th Realm of Existence and Progressives Against the #Trumpocalyse.
His hobbies include Japanese porn, foreign films and the works of Alan Moore.
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