“Black Panther” is now the highest-rated Marvel movie of all time. We can’t get enough superhero action. Why? Modern science has proven that human beings can actually develop supernormal abilities; the ancients knew there were many more than just a few. Our current culture is now starting to rediscover this, and so this proliferation of superhero movies is reflecting that.
However, America’s also had a teen-centric culture ever since Elvis and Woodstock ’69, and the demographic that gets excited about flying like Superman, while primarily tweens and teens, is basically everybody. We’re all stuck in teenage wasteland to some degree or another in America, and so the current infatuation with this youth culture of superhero movies is equally about superhero quippy-ness.
Would “Iron Man” be half as interesting without Robert Downey Jr.’s smart-aleck mouth? Or “Ant-Man” without Paul Rudd’s? Do you love teenage, quippy Spiderman, and quippy potty-mouthed Deadpool? If so, while African Prince T’Challa of “Black Panther” is a bit too solemn, he comes equipped with a quippy scene-stealing little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). She steals the whole movie. There’s already talk of a franchise just for her.
And thus it is in the Marvel-verse: a wealth of cool, supernormal abilities and teenage humor. It’s never-ending. Talk about your cash cow. Moo-velous. Marvel-ous. So why’s this one supposed to be superior to them all? It’s got some new stuff, to be sure.
Black Panther showed up in 1966, so he’s a longstanding member of the Marvel-verse. He’s a little like Iron Man, in that a good portion of his supernormal abilities come from his panther suit. Black Panther’s T’Challa is also African, because in 1966, America wasn’t really ready for an African-American superhero.
Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), hails from Wakanda, a country hidden in the heart of Africa, sort of like an equatorial Shambala. Wakanda is technologically centuries ahead of its time, having been scientifically fast-tracked eons ago by a meteorite, which gave the kingdom access to an endless source of the rare metal “vibranium” (what the panther suit is made of).
Wakanda’s got five tribes. Each tribe can challenge the heir for the crown, in mortal combat. Prince T’Challa’s coronation gets an unexpected challenge by M’Baku, prince of the northern territories (the imposing and hilarious newcomer Winston Duke).
Before fighting, the rules are that the heir-apparent prince must have his panther powers drained, rendering him human (and vulnerable) to the challenging prince. The winner becomes king, and this winning prince then gets the panther powers reinstalled by drinking a purple rain, er, elixir. It’s the new king’s duty to use these superpowers to defend Wakanda.
But no sooner does T’Challa attain the throne, here comes the antagonist-writ-large, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He’s T’Challa’s cousin, who grew up in America. An MIT grad, and an ex-Navy SEAL turned mercenary (should be named “Overkill-monger”), he’s got myriad tribal scar welts denoting belt-notch kills.
Killmonger comes seeking revenge, because T’Challa’s dad killed Killmonger’s dad. Fratricide. The gauntlet gets thrown; cousins get ready to duel to the death, adding Shakespearean-tragic heft to the tale. Fratricide and cousin-cide are not funny.
Killmonger’s got big plans. He’s essentially a communist: He’d like to spread Wakanda’s wealth around; give vibranium to oppressed black people everywhere, globally. So instead of Marx’s “Workers of the world unite,” the prelude to Killmonger’s plans would be rap group Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” It’s a well-intended, magnanimous plan, and looks quite good on paper.
Killmonger gains access to Wakanda by pilfering a Wakandan relic, an ancient vibranium hatchet, out of a London museum, with the help of partner-in-crime Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). (“Klauen” means “to steal” in German, so that’s fun.) And as not-Gollum, Andy Serkis is surprisingly formidable. He’s joined, in whiteness, by Martin Freeman, and to quote a fun internet meme: “Gollum and Bilbo are here; they’re the two Tolkien white actors in the movie.”
The Rest of the Players
The rest of the players, they’re mostly female. You’ve got Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy and former flame of T’Challa, around whom he gets hilariously weak in the knees.
As mentioned, T’Challa’s little sister, tech-whizbang Princess Shuri, heads up the Wakandan design group, making vibranium-based technology and functioning in the “Q” role from James Bond movies, equipping her big brother with cool vibranium doodads, and teasing him endlessly about the fact that he can’t be cool around his ex. Shuri’s imbibed the purple rain on occasion, too, and that’s why we’ll most likely be seeing her in more Marvel movies. I foresee Iron Man’s supreme inventor, Tony Stark, getting very excited by her mind.
Why It’s a Different Marvel Movie
This is no ho-hum, regular Marvel movie. As mentioned, it’s got two Shakespearean-type tragedies at its core, and it provides political food for thought: the insular, isolationist kingdom of Wakanda is resource-rich, self-sufficient, and prefers to keep it that way by masking itself with invisibility, like a giant Harry Potter cloak.
By the end of the film, though, Killmonger’s convinced T’Challa that spreading the vibranium wealth is the moral high ground. The problem with this is that communism always ends up killing people. One hundred million people slaughtered worldwide, and counting. So you can see, given the recent school shootings, and talk of arming teachers, and “Black Lives Matter,” why this movie is timely.
All of this already transcends the usual superhero fare. That, and the further fact that Marvel’s first black superhero film was written, directed, and stars an almost entirely black cast. And thus it was that “Black Panther” broke the box office.
I recently had a conversation with a bank teller. Upon learning I was a film critic, he said he’d give “Black Panther” at least a 4.0 out of 5. I only give out 4’s if I plan on seeing the movie more than once. Mr. Johnson said he’d happily watch “Panther” 10 times and couldn’t understand my reticence. I told him it’s a generational thing. At some point in the early 1970s, I’d noticed a sea change; comic books took over a huge percentage of youth reading. So I just can’t get terribly excited about comic book movies, whereas the millennial Mr. Johnson sees them as the only exciting thing, and furthermore gave me an in-depth explanation of why this movie is so important for black folks. I myself am a black folk—and Mr. Johnson the bank teller schooled me on a few points I’d missed. That should cover the transcending aspects of “Panther.”
Breaking the box office is Hollywood’s main reason for building the Marvel-verse. They’re smart about the bottom line, and so they know better than to keep telling the same story over and over again. “Black Panther,” while not superior to all the other movies in terms of the supernormal abilities on display, CGI, acting, and so on, represents the start of Hollywood creating a legacy.
History’s longest story is not anything by Homer, Joyce, or Dostoyevsky. It’s by Charles Shultz. “Peanuts” is the longest story ever told. Don’t underestimate comics. Hollywood will make more money by taking this wealth of supernormal ability films to the next level, and having it be the epochal narrative of our times. So here’s to you, Mr. Johnson: Rated 4 stars out of 5.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Winston Duke, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya
Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 16, 2018
Rated 4 stars out of 5