Wakanda Forever - Black Panther
It is rare, but it does happen. The movie that has never been here before, but confidently walks into the room, sits down, and seems as if it should have been here all along. Black Panther is not the first Black superhero movie. But with predecessors like Catwoman and Blade, the film universe had been hungry for a film of this caliber that does the things it does. And yet even setting aside the power of its very existence, Black Panther does so many things right as a film, it is inevitable that it will be regarded as one of the best of the superhero sub-genre.
Much of the story is set in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that represents the technological and societal advancement that might have been possible absent the forces of colonialism. Wakanda works hard to understand the world, but to also protect its technology from leaking to the rest of the world. Much of their advancement is based on a mythical substance called vibranium, which has any number of futuristic uses from healing properties to technological advantages. When the story picks up, Wakanda has adopted a strategy of sending spies out into the world, but also shielding themselves from the attention of outsiders. To the world, Wakanda is just another third world nation. In reality, it has surpassed the rest of the world in just about every conceivable way.
The crux of the story is that the newly crown King T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) has ascended to the throne following his father's death, and he seeks to preserve their way of life. When a challenger named Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) arises, T'Challa must Marshall his resources, including a team of fearsome women that include his love interest, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong'o), a fiercesome warrior named Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) and his sister, Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is responsible for developing Wakanda's technology. Together, they fight against outside forces and try to save Wakanda from an uncertain future.
What I find most fascinating about Black Panther is the number of different conversations it is having at once and the way all of the character arcs beautifully support those conversations. On one level, the most apparent story is that of Wakanda fighting agains the colonialist forces that have plagued Africa throughout history. Martin Freeman (played by Everrett K. Ross), a CIA agent, represents those forces, as he discovers more and more about Wakanda and seems to flirt with the idea of stealing what makes Wakanda great. It is fitting then that his character arc ends with him fighting to preserve Wakanda's secrecy. I was so pleased that his arc did not interfere with the deeper and ultimately more important arc of Wakanda deciding what role it wanted to play for the global African diaspora.
When Killmonger shows up in Wakanda, with his Oakland roots and a decidedly pan-African worldview, the film really becomes a conversation between Black people. African and African-American identities talking to one another to space, time, history and all sorts of other dimensions that have historically divided. There is a certain beautiful blurring of the lines, as Wakanda's leaders decide which route they want to take. Deep and meaningful questions about allegiance and the possibilities inherent in dreaming really separate this from the usual super-hero fare. That Killmonger crystallizes existential questions about what it means to be from somewhere and what it means to want to change your circumstances makes him one of the very best Marvel villains of all time. But it's the verve with which Michael B. Jordan plays him that makes him truly unparalleled. Angela Bassett. Forest Whitaker. Daniel Kaluuya. Lupita Nyong'o. The Oscar nominations and wins abound and yet Jordan still manages to outshine.
Seeing Black women as action heroes--blowing up cars and throwing wigs--is just one of the ways the film is doing things in a radically different way. And while the film is a departure from so much of the film landscape, it fits solidly into the threads Marvel has been weaving recently. It shows the way our political world would react to superheroes; this time, in the context of Africa and African identity. But what really sets this apart is Ryan Coogler's ability to make so many of the stories within the story matter. The movie is having so many different conversations and involves so many different characters that it is easy to imagine a worse version in less able hands. I consider us all quite lucky that we don't have to ask what if; we actually did get the very best version of Black Panther.
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