In its opening weekend, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther instantly became the highest-grossing February release in history, the 5th-biggest opening weekend of all time, the highest-grossing movie with an black director, and the highest-grossing movie with a predominantly black cast. Those last two are particularly important.
Hollywood has long shied away from casting minority actors and hiring minority directors, fearing such moves will jeopardize box-office revenue. Projected to bring in a global total of $361 million over Presidents’ Day weekend, Black Panther is definitive proof that such fears have no basis in truth—and for that, it is a triumph of a film.
Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly crowned king and panther-themed protector of a small East-African nation called Wakanda. Wakanda, like many modern-day African states, is impoverished, covered with inhospitable jungles and mountains, and has yet to be industrialized—or so it seems. In reality, it is the most advanced nation in the world. Its people use their technological prowess and supply of the fictional metal vibranium, the most versatile and powerful substance on Earth, to hide their advancements from the chaotic outside world.
Aside from a brief detour to South Korea in pursuit of a delightfully cartoonish arms dealer (Andy Serkis), this movie—and its story—are rooted in Wakanda. Director Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station and Creed has crafted a world with depth and character not seen since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
What makes Wakanda truly captivating, however, is the fact that it is imbued just as much with African-inspired culture as with advanced technology. The hovercrafts that soar above Wakanda’s streets have undersides that resemble tribal masks. T’Challa’s genius younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), invents incredible gadgets in a lab decorated with runes and panther artwork. Ruth E. Carter’s gorgeous costume design plays a huge role in this: rather than the bland spacesuits that characterize too many sci-fi utopias, Wakanda’s residents wear a myriad of colorful gowns, robes, body art, and jewelry. Wakanda isn’t just futuristic; it’s afrofuturistic.
The idea that the most powerful country on Earth lies in Africa, and is so distinctly African, has a symbolic weight that cannot be ignored. It simultaneously subverts and draws attention to the stereotypes directed at the continent and its inhabitants. The Wakandans’ effort to hide their country’s true nature works partly because they have the technology to do so. But equally critical to the success of their deception is that no one thinks to question it. Who would suspect that Africa, a continent only ever mentioned in the international press when a civil war breaks out or an infectious disease runs wild, would be home to the most advanced nation on the planet? Just as it challenged assumptions about how much money a movie about people of color could bring in at the box office, so too does Black Panther challenge our inherent assumptions about our world and the different peoples who populate it.
Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, decided to make that dynamic a key component of Black Panther’s story. The central conflict revolves around the battle between T’Challa and the mercenary known as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) over Wakanda’s throne. But more than that, it’s a battle over Wakanda’s place in the world. T’Challa is a conflicted monarch; he has a depressingly understandable urge to shield his people from the chaos beyond their borders, but part of him feels that Wakanda has a responsibility to use its advancements to help those in need.
Killmonger’s vision, on the other hand, is crystal clear. He too believes Wakanda should expose itself to the world, but for a different reason. Having grown up in the United States, Killmonger has witnessed firsthand the racism and oppression endured by people of color who reside outside the Wakandan bubble. He wants to use Wakanda’s resources and advanced weaponry to arm oppressed communities around the world. “There are about 2 billion people all over the world that look like us,” he says. “Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.”
Killmonger is one of the Marvel movies’ best villains. His tragic backstory and Jordan’s intimidating but moving performance make him a captivating character, but it’s his aforementioned motivation that make him—and the movie—truly remarkable. They say the best villains are those with whom you can sympathize. Watching Jordan as Killmonger, and hearing his sentiments, I found myself wondering if he was right, and wishing we’d gotten to see a movie in which his plan had succeeded.
Purely as a film, Black Panther is far from perfect. Composer Ludwig Goransson makes the mistake of abandoning the tribal, drum-heavy score that characterizes much of the beginning of the movie; I would have loved to see (or rather, hear) the elegant Wakandan landscape complemented by an African-inspired score in the vein of Hans Zimmer’s work on The Lion King. Moreover, the digital effects look unfinished in spots, and its pacing is less deliberate than other Marvel movies, Spider Man: Homecoming and Captain America: Civil War being some of the best examples.
Civil War is, in my opinion, a more solid film in terms of construction, but one critic described it as “forgettable” in her Black Panther review. My dad fell asleep watching both Civil War and its predecessor, The Winter Soldier.
I think that gets at what makes Black Panther shine above the rest; unlike Civil War, unlike most superhero movies, this film has a point. Its story and characters deliver a plethora of timely messages, and not just in passing comments or half-baked side-quests. The entire film is rooted in big issues facing today’s world, and it has opinions about them. At one moment in a mid-credits scene, T’Challa declares to a U.N. conference that the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. I was surprised that Marvel and Disney allowed such an overt criticism of Trumpism to make it into a big-budget film like this. It’s an unusually daring move for Hollywood’s biggest studio.
But then again, this entire film is daring. Besides its predominantly black cast, T’Challa’s elite guard detail, the Dora Milaje, is made up entirely of women. Wakanda’s leading engineer is a sixteen-year-old girl. The general who commands the nation’s armies is a woman.
Black Panther is the perfect model for the 21st-century blockbuster. It demonstrates that car chases, kung fu, and imaginative gadgetry can interweave seamlessly with thoughtful critiques on racial injustice, isolationism, and the responsibility of powerful nations to the rest of the world. And, even more importantly, it proves that movies about people of color, directed by people of color, starring people of color, can succeed.