By Libby Gandhi.
Black Panther could have buckled under the weight of expectation. 24 years in the making, dripping with racial and historical poignancy, it was anticipated as a turning moment in black Hollywood representation.
The result has not only buoyed that expectation, but flourished to become the most fully realized, creative, and coolest Marvel superhero film to date.
Its success is reflected in early Box Office takings. Black Panther, the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), enjoyed the 5th highest-grossing opening weekend of all time in the US, drawing AUD $243 million in ticket sales. In Australia, it has taken just under $12 million, the second biggest opener of all time after The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The story unfolds in Wakanda, a fictional, utopian African nation untouched by colonialism. The country has flourished thanks to large reserves of Vibranium – a powerful metal unique to the land – however, it has done so in isolation and secrecy for fear of the outside world exploiting and corrupting their way of life.
Much of the film’s narrative revolves around the country itself. Indeed, Wakanda is emblematic of much that Black Panther represents. It fits within the wider Marvel universe yet is wholly self-contained. It localizes and offers nuance to universal themes. It marries futuristic technological innovations with respect for ancient rituals. And it provides a hopeful vision of universal self-realization.
If making it to production is the film’s first success, then such convincing, considered and fully realized world building is its second.
The narrative follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who assumes the throne, and powers of the Black Panther, after his father dies. After international arms dealer Klaw (Andy Serkis) gets hold of Vibranium, Wakanda’s secret comes under threat and the Black Panther must protect his nation. But a greater threat awaits in the form of a challenge to T’Challa’s throne by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who has a radical vision for the future of Wakanda,
Characterization is arguably the film’s most outstanding quality. Black Panther features a host of rounded and nuanced characters including Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o), W’Kabi (BAFTA winner Daniel Kaluuya), Shuri (Letitia Wright) the Princess tech genius, and head of the all-female King’s Guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira).
Moreover, Black Panther – literally – offers two versions of the titular character. One, the half-American mercenary, Erik Killmonger, and the other the patient and reserved T’Challa. Each has a valid claim to the throne and neither are conventional Marvel superhero characters.
Killmonger is the most interesting Marvel villain in memory. Really, he is only a ‘villain’ insofar as he directly challenges T’Challa’s philosophy. He is enraged at the systematic disenfranchisement and disempowerment of black people across the world. He proposes a solution to re-distribute Wakandan wealth among black communities for armed revolts against their oppressors. Killmonger openly and furiously refers to the “bondage” of slavery.
But Jordan’s magnetic character does not rest on the megalomaniacal madman villain trope. He is also played with humanity. The result is a profound moral dilemma.
Consequentially, Black Panther enjoys modern thematic resonance. It doesn’t shy away from issues of race and injustice, and explores what it means to be black in America and Africa. Indeed, an appreciation of these complexities runs through the core of its narrative.
Afro-punk and Afrofuturism inform the visual design. Costumes, make-up and set design respect and echo the traditions of existing African peoples while giving them modern context. Black Panther breathes life and terror into African masks and marries armor-like qualities in traditional clothing with warm textures and rich colours. The result is dazzling.
The imagined architecture of Wakanda is similarly hybrid. The built environment mixes Western architecture with distinctive natural materials, color and the space of African building. Shots of this techtropolis are cut with dramatic African naturescapes.
The VFX is deft in typical, elaborate Marvel fight sequences. Its use is heavy handed during slower, scenic scenes although the hyper-real tone it creates is fairly typical of the MCU.
Black Panther’s soundtrack also warrants mention. It is curated by Kendrick Lamar and features big names such as the Weeknd, Vince Staples, Anderson.Paak alongside lesser knon artists SOB x RBE, Babes Wodumo, and Maal who sings in the Fula language. The music is experimental; recorded in Senegal, featuring West African voices and instruments, however the pan-African identity that Black Panther purports to represents warrants greater variety and African influence.
It’s a film that is inalienable from history. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther character in 1966 in the midst of the civil rights struggle. The character shares a name with the revolutionary Black Panther organization, who were feared as threatening and radical. The character’s name was briefly changed in the wake of the group’s emergence, but shortly reverted.
However, as Khanya Mtshali from the Guardian warns, we should be wary of overstating the importance of Black Panther as a form of resistance. The fact that this film has been made, and has been successful, is important, but we should not imagine that buying a ticket to a Disney film is itself an act of resistance. It is a film that touches on revolutionary themes, but actual revolution demands more.
Though it’s not flawless, Black Panther is a Marvel film like no other. The characterization, visual design and world building is smart, immersive and a delight to the eyes and mind. What’s more it’s just really cool.