If one needed any further evidence that Marvel Studios has its fingers firmly on the pulse of modern audiences, look no further than the fervor surrounding the newest entry in the vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. While the Black Panther has been well-known to comic fans for over fifty years after being created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for FANTASTIC FOUR #52 in 1966, he has remained a relatively unknown bit of trivia for the general public, much like the Guardians of the Galaxy once were. Yet, there is practically every bit the excitement surrounding this film as there has been for any of Marvel’s other recent releases, with box office records expected to not only fall but be obliterated over the weekend.
Without question, Marvel and Disney know how to market their properties, but they’ve also built up good will with audiences and critics alike (every single MCU entry has garnered positive reviews, overall), so audiences feel safe in “risking” their money on a ticket to see the latest MCU effort. But in addition to all of that, Black Panther is tapping into the same vein that both of last year’s hits Get Out and Wonder Woman tapped into. The film is very appealing to an audience that has been underserved by the genre of comic book films. There have been black superheroes before, but – as far as leading roles go – it’s been a while and little to none of them have been presented with the same sense of prestige and scale as the Black Panther is being presented. Just as Wonder Woman was a superhero who happened to be a female, rather than a “female superhero” (“Look! A superhero who keeps reminding you she’s female! Yay!”), the Panther isn’t a “black superhero” but rather a superhero (and king) who is also black. Don’t overlook the difference, because it’s all-important.
So, after being introduced to audiences in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we finally have the Black Panther’s formal debut. I’ve had much about how the film isn’t a “typical Marvel movie”, and that would be true if there were such a thing. But Marvel Studios has given us action films, comedies, espionage stories, heist films, mysteries, dramas, coming of age movies, space operas, period pieces, and virtually everything else (except for horror). And now, in the form of Black Panther, Marvel and Coogler have given us a bombastic social commentary, though not necessarily of the kind one might presume.
What Coogler has delivered is a film about equality in all of its forms. The goal is not to spread a message of “black power”. In fact, the narrative goes out of its way to make the point that power should be wielded responsibly and benevolently. Rather than being about any sort of “power”, the film preaches empathy, tolerance, and understanding. Chadwick Boseman’s title character bears the birth name of T’Challa, with the Black Panther being a mantle that is passed down from one king to the next. How that power is wielded is the primary focus of the story and is represented by multiple points of view, all with a component of validity.
Many people in the past have drawn a comparison between the dichotomous dynamic of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and that of the X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto due to their similar respective ideologies regarding discrimination and race relations, though a more direct comparison can now be made from the real-world civil rights-era figureheads to T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Ultimately, the message in the film is that nothing should matter less than skin color. For T’Challa, it’s completely irrelevant. He won’t even entertain that discussion. All that truly matters are ideals. One can choose inclusion or exclusion. It’s a choice we each make every day. We make it in small ways and we make it in large ways. But we all do it, without exception, every single day. And that is the choice that truly defines us, both as individuals and as a culture.
Coogler and Marvel have assembled a stellar cast and crew to help them to tell this story. In addition to Boseman’s T’Challa (who is complex, layered, and majestic) and Jordan’s Killmonger (who is technically a villain but will likely have many viewers wondering if his basic beliefs are really that off-kilter), audiences will enjoy a memorable supporting cast of authentically complicated characters portrayed by talented performers. The biggest crowd-pleaser of the bunch will likely be Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister. We can’t know if her character will eventually follow the same path as her comic book counterpart (comic fans know what I’m talking about. The rest of you can look it up if you want to risk being spoiled down the line.), but either way, she is a welcome addition to the proceedings and Wright plays her with unbridled joy and enthusiasm.
I could nitpick. The action is solid (with a grand finale) but not overly groundbreaking, though Shuri designs some extremely ingenious tech. It’s guilty of one trope that the MCU is often guilty of in that the villain becomes a super-powered clone of the hero (we’ve seen it before in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange). And, while it’s a good time, it’s not quite as much pure fun as many other recent spectacle films, both Marvel and otherwise. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be as it offers a certain kind of substance that many of those other films did not. The film breaks ground by taking the high road and refusing to indulge those who are waiting for it to in some way – any way – stick its foot in its mouth. Using this film as a provocative conversation starter would have been easy. But, instead, Coogler and Marvel take a much more difficult and admirable route: they deliver a film that is a poignant, powerful, and punctuated conversation ender.
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