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One of the fascinating aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the way the filmmakers have cherry-picked elements of characters with five decades (or more in the case of Captain America) of history. As an example, the three Iron Man films used storylines from the 1960s (his origin), the 1970s (Justin Hammer and Whiplash), the 1980s (Obadiah Stane), the 1990s (War Machine), and the 2000s (Extremis), as well as elements that have been present all along (the Mandarin, Stark’s involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D.). Yet all of it coheres nicely, as those three movies have a single, coherent story arc, and they combine with the two Avengers movies, Captain America: Civil War, and Spider-Man: Homecoming to form an impressive narrative of Stark’s life to date.
Black Panther does something very similar, made more impressive that it’s all in one movie. The film makes use of elements that have been there since the 1960s—the general setup, the heart-shaped flower that provides Panther with his strength and agility—with others that were added over time, particularly the expansion of his role as a world leader during Christopher Priest’s run (which also gave us Everett Ross and the Dora Milaje). Plus, the three people whom one would say have been Panther’s primary antagonists over the decades are all here: Klaw (reimagined as Ulysses Klaue), Killmonger, and Man-Ape (de-yuckified and is simply M’Baku, and thank goodness for that).
With all that, Ryan Coogler still has something new and important to say, as he addresses full on the major issue with a “hidden nation” of technological marvels, particularly in Africa, and particularly one that’s supposed to be run by a heroic character. Wakanda stood by and stayed hidden with their hoard of vibranium while all around them other Africans were exploited, the continent itself mined for resources both monetary and human for centuries.
Killmonger’s goal is to make Wakanda into what he felt it should have been all along: the vanguard of Africa controlling the western world the way Europe and North America did for so long, much of it on the back of exploited Africans.
It’s interesting, a lot of what’s been written and discussed about Black Panther has been about how Killmonger is the first really complex villain in the MCU, or possibly the second if they credit Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes in Homecoming. This assertion rather bizarrely ignores Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, which is especially absurd given that Killmonger and Loki are basically the same character.
That’s not a dis on Killmonger, either. Loki is still the breakout character of the MCU, and it’s because he’s allowed to be understandable and sympathetic up to a point. Both are legitimate heirs to a throne, both are children of two separate worlds, both use the techniques of one world to put themselves in a position of power in the other, and actually do get what they want, at least temporarily. Having said that, neither the Thor movies, nor Avengers, nor Black Panther lose sight of the fact that we’re talking a villain here. This has not stopped people from talking about both characters in terms of how you almost want to root for them, the actors’ respective charisma (which is considerable in both cases) masking the horrible things their characters do. Killmonger, in case folks might have forgotten, shot his girlfriend in the head without a moment’s thought or hesitation because she was standing between him and Klaue. Not to mention his role in killing the museum employees who were just working stiffs doing their job. Plus the whole starting-a-civil-war thing…
That’s not the only element Black Panther shares with the Thor films, but again, not a bad thing. Both deal with issues of monarchy, with our heroes discovering that their beloved fathers were not the noble figures they had made them out to be. More to the point, they couldn’t be, because being a ruler means making awful, horrible decisions that don’t always turn out right. Odin set one potential heir against another, was capricious, hot-tempered, and vicious. T’Chaka abandoned his nephew, refusing him his heritage and birthright. Worse, from the way the 1992 scenes were shot, T’Chaka had no intention of bringing young Eric along back to Wakanda. The airship was above the building with nobody on the ground watching Eric. It looked like T’Chaka’s only plan was to bring his brother N’Jobu along and leave the kid behind.
Panther’s examination of these issues is a bit more immediate because it’s more grounded in the real world than Asgard is. It’s not a coincidence that Coogler picked 1992 (the year of the Rodney King riots) Oakland (the birthplace of the Black Panther party) as the time and place of the movie’s inciting incident. Plus, Wakanda is truly a part of Africa, and the movie itself embraces the entire continent, from the various regions represented by Wakanda’s five nations to the Boko Haram slavers that Nakia is going after at the top of the film to Klaue and his thick Afrikaans accent.
The movie is as beautiful and stunning and magnificently acted as everyone has been saying. Another Thor connection: just as I wish Jack Kirby had lived to see the 2011 film that gave us Asgard in all its Kirbyesque glory, so too do I deeply regret that the King didn’t get to see how stupendously Black Panther put his Wakanda up on the big screen. Chadwick Boseman teased us with a phenomenal T’Challa in Civil War, and he’s even better here. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shur, and especially Danai Gurira as Okoye are stellar as T’Challa’s support network. I especially like the fact that all three of them are women is never once mentioned in the film (though it has rightly been celebrated in the discussion of it).
Having said that, a big issue I have with the movie is the treatment of women. Yes, Nakia, who puts helping people above even her country and her love for T’Challa; Okoye, who is so devoted to Wakanda that she unhesitatingly swears allegiance to Killmonger for as long as he appears to be legitimately King (she only rebels when T’Challa turns up alive, at which point the challenge has not ended, and the kingship is in doubt); and Shuri, the face of STEM in the MCU (can’t wait until she meets Stark, assuming T’Challa lets him anywhere near his sister, which he probably shouldn’t), are all fantastic. But when T’Chaka died, why is it that T’Challa takes over running the kingdom? There’s a queen right there, yet Ramonda is never mentioned as a possible person to rule Wakanda. Since she appears to be younger than T’Chaka, it can’t be her age. So why isn’t she allowed to be queen in this theoretically progressive Wakanda?
More fundamentally, where is Killmonger’s mother? Where’s the consideration for Killmonger’s mother? It’s bad enough that T’Chaka killed N’Jobu, but he intended to bring him home without his wife (who never even gets the dignity of a name) and kid behind. Just another single black woman stuck raising a kid after the father dies or disappears. But what role does she play in his life? (To jump once again back to Loki, one of the trickster’s redeeming qualities was his love for Frigga.)
These are, ultimately, minor problems, overall, however. The film is beautiful, the film is powerful, and the film is important. On top of that, it beautifully embodies every era of its title character, from his earliest days in Fantastic Four and elsewhere by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the 1960s, to the seminal work done with the character by Don McGregor and Kirby in the 1970s, Christopher Priest in the 1990s, and Ta-Nehisi Coates in the 2000s. Bravo!