Black Panther the Breaking Wave of a New Trend?

Directed by Ryan Coogler
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
PG-13, 135 minutes
★★★ ½

I had a bad back when Black Panther was in theaters and finally caught up with it on DVD. If you’ve not done so already, you should definitely see this film, though a few caution flags might deter you from jumping onto the critical acclaim bandwagon.

In brief, this black superhero movie postulates a hidden African empire, Wakanda, which formed when four of five warring tribes—the warrior-like Jabari are holdouts—united and agreed to share vibranium, a metal deposited by a meteorite. Vibranium has qualities that allowed Wakanda to develop a civilization and level of technology far in advance of anywhere else on earth. Our tale opens when T’Challa (Chadwick Boswick) ascends to the Wakanda throne, endures challenges, and seeks advice from Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Think Joseph Campbell's hero's journey cycle. T'Challa also puts up with his meddlesome sister/tech wiz Shuri (Letitia Walker), and good-natured needling from all for his obvious infatuation with his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

No Marvel Comic franchise—especially one released as a summer blockbuster—is going to be a romantic comedy, so lets first address just this much of the film. It’s a very good thing to see Africans and African Americans cast as heroes and heroines instead of modern-day Stepin Fetchits or worse: pimps, whores, drug dealers, gangbangers, or goofy sidekicks to white stars. Lest anyone be tempted to label Wakanda a black fairy tale, know that the Kingdom of Greater Zimbabwe (11th-15th century) was indeed far in advance of any European society of the time. Take away Wakanda’s futuristic trappings and replace the high tech with advanced Iron Age knowledge, and a Wakanda-like civilization is historically accurate.

In like fashion, the idea of a cloaked superior civilization is a common comic book and fantasy trope. Think of Wonder Woman’s Amazonia, Uganda in Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column, Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s Herland, Atlantis, some of the lands in Gulliver’s Travels, even Brigadoon. There are literally scores of examples found within utopian literature and science fiction. Once again, it’s refreshing to populate such worlds with black faces.

Black Panther is strongest in constructing Wakanda. Director Ryan Coogler deftly and succinctly gives us just enough information about beliefs, rituals, family structure, power structures, everyday life, and challenges to bring his fictive world to life. He does so on par with the backdrop Patty Jenkins developed in Wonder Woman; Coogler's is also a world in which women have important roles. T’Challa is the Black Panther, but the film’s women are well-developed personalities with the ability to advise, assist, even humble T’Challa.

The central story also intrigues. As it transpires, some very nasty folks also know about vibranium, including Ulysses Klare (Andy Serkis), who is essentially an arms dealer on steroids. He masterminds the theft of an ancient museum object whose vibranium is mislabeled as iron, and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. Obstacles in his way include T’Challa—posing as the chief of a backward African nation, the Wakanda seen by outsiders—his regimental commander Okoye (Danai Gurira), a CIA agent named Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a former agent with lots of issues, including megalomaniacal dreams of creating a global black empire the way Alexander the Great built his: by conquest.

This sets the stage for the film’s central drama, but it’s also where Coogler’s imagination wanes. A film director doesn’t have to follow comic book conventions. Wonder Woman took on a look that transgressed its World War II time period, even though it anachronistically blended the past and the future. Coogler resorts more to standard cloak-and-dagger techniques as prelude to a potentially apocalyptic battle. In that struggle, he too liberally borrows from what has already been done. Just change a few costumes and props, and you’ve seen these battles in Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Star Trek, and Star Wars, especially the last of these. When Everett Ross takes command of an advanced fighter craft he’s never piloted, he must intuit its operation and trust his instincts. He is essentially Luke Skywalker tapping into the Force. In similar fashion, the giant rhinos in Black Panther are analogous to the AT-AT Walkers of Star Wars or the wargs in Lord of the Rings.

Some have criticized Martin Freeman’s role in the film, and I suppose it depends upon how you wish to spin it. You could see his presence as a sop thrown to white audiences; on the other hand, you could argue Coogler is making snide comment upon black sidekick roles by casting a white actor in that position. (Freeman is definitely not the superior intellect.) Mostly, though, the last third of Black Panther loses both the sociology and the humor that made the first two-thirds so compelling. It goes for easy thrills and hyper-sensationalism; in doing so, the film becomes ordinary instead of distinct.

It is clear, though, that there is great global desire on the part of audiences to see something other than white heroes on the screen. Black Panther has already grossed more than $1.3 billion worldwide and that number is climbing daily.  In this sense, Black Panther might well touch off a trend that will overwhelm any artistic shortcomings. That deserves applause.

Rob Weir

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