Written by Patrick Fitz-Gerald, Esq.
The Build Up
In July of 1966, Stan Lee created a black superhero. Well, actually, it was probably Jack Kirby, the legendary artist, who created him, but Stan got the writer credit, and since the writers write the history books, they tend to get the credit. There had been black heroes before then, but not like this. The world really hadn’t seen a black superhero who was not a sidekick or a caricature. They wanted to create a black superhero who would be on par with any of the Avengers and who would not look up to them, but who would view them with distrust and suspicion. (Gotta love how the old bullpen loved subverting tropes.)
So they created T'Challa, the king of Wakanda, a fictional African nation. Wakanda was basically the opposite of what everyone thought an African nation could be. It was the most technologically advanced nation on earth, but it was reclusive. It was one of the only places on earth that you could find Vibranium (Marvel's first fictional super-metal before Adamantium), which also made it one of the richest nations on earth. It had never been conquered, colonized or even really discovered by the rest of the world
T'Challa was its king and was a king in title and in personality. He was above the petty superheroics of the Avengers and turned down membership multiple times before he finally agreed to work alongside them when they needed him and his resources. Not quite as much of a dick as Namor, but not willing to take any shit either. His first concern was always protecting his kingdom and his subjects. Only if those goals aligned with whatever super-nonsense the Avengers were up to would he deign to fight alongside them.
Jack had to know this would piss off many white adults, in fact, it’s probably why he did it. But they were writing comics at a time when they knew there were very few adults outside of Frederick Wertham who would ever read it, so they were safe to be subversive in the funny books. But there must have a been a few who picked it up, because in October of that same year Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party. Now, I have no evidence that either one of them ever read comics or even knew about T'Challa, but I find it too coincidental that they picked that name completely ignorant of the character. The fact that T'Challa was a proud black man who was the equal or better of any white man surely must have appealed to their sensibilities, and the fact that he kicked much ass probably didn't hurt either.
So now the years have passed. They killed Bobby, Martin, and Malcolm. Mississippi burned, the Huxtables moved into their brownstone. They elected Barack, and then The Donald. Blade got a whole trilogy, and only now does T'Challa finally get his own movie. Honestly, it probably is for the best that it took this long. If they had tried to do this movie before this, they would have fucked it up. It would have starred Bruce Willis as T'Challa or told the story of how Cap came to save Wakanda from the Klan or some nonsense. Marvel has finally done enough movies that they are now free to tell these stories without having to do what the "powers that be" think the public wants out of a superhero movie.
If you have seen the latest Marvel Phase 3 movies, you know they have gotten trippy as shit. They are using Jack "the King" Kirby's art as their influence and it shows. Dr. Strange's trip to the astral plane, Thor's falling through the wormholes onto Sakaar, and just all the color they are infusing into these moves are the result of one of the most influential artists in the history of comics and the imagination he put into these stories. Wakanda is pretty much the capital of trippy sci-fi comics land, and now Marvel has the money and the technology to make the sfx they need to make it look like it should on the big screen. (It looks like they are setting a lot of the next Avengers movie in Wakanda probably because it is going to look so cool.) They also finally feel confident funding a movie with a nearly all black cast (Michonne, Apollo Creed's kid, Maz Kanata and Saw Guerra all make appearances), black director (Ryan Coogler of Rocky 8 - Black Rocky) and a black star (Chadwick Boseman). Plus the soundtrack is all almost all Kendrick Lamar, who I hear the kids say is "lit." I don't think this movie could have been made ten years ago, or frankly, even five years ago.
I would have to say this is exactly the kind of movie that needs to be seen in the theater. It is going to look beautiful, and if Marvel's track record of late is any indication, it is going to be some serious slam-bang ass-kicking garnished with some real-world politics and some set-up for the biggest chapter in Marvel movies yet. I can't wait.
Go see this movie.
The Black Panther is the Last Jedi of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both movies seem to serve as a pivot point for their franchises, opening up their respective universes to more nuance, more ambiguity and more stories. One of the things I loved about Ep. VIII, and again here, is how we see good people do bad things and bad people do good things. No one in the real world is simply good or bad, so why should we continue to pretend that fictional characters should be? Marvel seemed to understand this from its earliest books: no one is the villain of their own story. But so far, the movies seem to have some real deficiencies with one-dimensional villains. This is not the case in The Black Panther.
Erik Killmonger may be the bad guy, and we know it, but his reasons for doing what he does aren’t entirely without merit. Similarly, T’Challa is our hero, and he is a great one, but he is conflicted in the great tradition of Marvel’s heroes with feet of clay. And the choices he has to make are not simple ones. And why should they be? Even as a non-monarch of my own nation, I find that the choices I make are rarely between good and evil. More often they are between bad and worse, or between the those with negative effects I can foresee and those I cannot. It would have been an easy cop-out just to make Ulysses Klaue the boorish “white devil” into the film’s main villain and cast this conflict in more black-and-white terms (ahem), but they didn’t. Good on them.
Even without the great character development, the movie is beautiful and fills the screen with the color. It feels like Marvel has traded in their old 16 crayon set for the big 144 crayon set with the sharpener in the back. Kirby’s influence permeates Wakanda which has earned itself a central place in the next Avengers movie. I don’t think I have wanted to actually visit a place this badly since Rivendell. Cantina-scene-esque background extras fill a marketplace scene in Wakanda City and help create a dusty and wild feeling to the streets rather than offering a Star Trek version of a clean technological utopia. Marvel has always sold itself as “your universe” and despite all the crazy wizardry seen here, it feels real.
Marvel movies up until now have sidestepped some of the reality of our world - Hydra was behind the Nazis, not fear and demagoguery. Robots and aliens make better easily-destroyed foot soldiers than actual people, and you can avoid the wise old oriental stereotype by just casting Tilda Swinton. This makes it all the more interesting that The Black Panther doesn’t shy away from the legacy of slavery and colonization here. It’s not the central story, but, just like here in the real world, they are important to a full understanding of the world and how it works. A story about an African King without acknowledgement of the history of the continent would just feel silly. And if I have any complaints about the movie it would be that there wasn’t enough silliness for my taste - but this is not a silly movie and T’Challa doesn’t have a silly bone in his body, so I suppose it was the right choice.
Sure, there are some typically Marvel-movie tropes that invite valid criticisms, but nothing worse than we have seen in any of the others. Why did so-and-so do such-and-such a thing instead of just doing this thing right away? Well, because it would have been a short trip if he had, and this was one trip that was worth taking and staring at the world as it goes by. Enjoy it.