Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’: A Dazzling, Superpowered Love Letter to Black People
Ryan Coogler’s spectacular first foray into the Marvel universe is an absolute game-changer.
In the hazy beginnings of 2017, the film Get Out debuted and managed to give an entire new twist to the horror genre. The lingering effects of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, which delivered a black spin on Rosemary’s Baby-esque body horror, are still felt to this day. Get Out was not only nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director at the 2018 Oscars, but its lead actor Daniel Kaluuya was also nominated for Best Actor. That a genre film could defy tradition with multiple nominations — horror is rarely nominated, save for prestige horror like the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs—has been one of the season's biggest surprises.
It should then not be out of the realm of possibility to expect that Ryan Coogler’s foray into the superhero genre with Black Panther could pull off the same trick. Coogler first dazzled audiences with his harrowing indie film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the death of a black man by two police officers, and then Creed, a spin-off of the Rocky franchise that managed to be one of the best films of the past decade. That Coogler didn’t receive accolades for Creed was frankly criminal, but it would be downright sacrilegious to deny the impact on the superhero genre and film in general that Black Panther will have.
To describe Black Panther as a black superhero film doesn’t do enough to praise how utterly disinterested it is in appealing to a white audience. At its core, Coogler’s film feels like a love letter to every black person who will step into the movie theater to see it, be they of American or African descent. It is a film that honors the history of black bodies on our entire continent, from the kingdoms they built, to the bondage they were shackled in, to the world that has treated them with cruelty at every possible turn.
This film will surely garner condescending takes like "this doesn't feel like a superhero film at all," which ignores the fact that the genre can be bent and improved upon when you involve true artists in the making of them rather than creating them in a corporate conference room. Coogler has absolutely created his own world, but it still feels fantastic and pulpy and beholden to the genre in the way Tim Burton's Batman films felt, the way James Mangold's Logan felt, the way Taika Waititi's Thor: Raganarok felt. It's the latter film Black Panther has the most in common with. Both Black Panther and Ragnarok are concerned with kings hiding the sins of their past from their son, and that son having to reckon with a monster that has been created without their knowledge.
Yet where Ragnarok went for camp and a wacky side plot on a planet where Thor became a gladiator, Black Panther zeroes in and tells a tightly focused story about two sons who must go through a rite of passage to become the men they want to be. Chadwick Boseman's Prince T'Challa has inherited Wakanda from his father, but he is unsure of how to embrace his power. Should he keep Wakanda sealed off from the rest of the world, mining its resources for his people only, or should he share Wakanda's technological advances with other black bodies who are suffering in nations riddled with the effects of colonialism or American racism?
Conversely, Michael B. Jordan's Kill Monger, who is ostensibly the film's villain, would be a hero in any other story. His father was murdered and he grows up to learn that he's actually a descendant of a royal family, a family that has not acknowledged his presence. When he talks about how Wakanda has ignored black people across the globe for their own benefit, you feel his pain. You're on his side, and you think maybe he might be the one in the right.
When you have a character in a superhero film make a direct link from slave ships and black people who jumped from them to avoid bondage, you know it's operating on a completely different level than any other Marvel film. Not to mention that the women in this film are celebrated in a way that Marvel women haven't been celebrated before, let alone black women. Lupita N'yongo, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright could star in their own damn film and it would be every bit as mesmerizing as this afrofuturistic world that Coogler plunges us into. That's the beauty of Black Panther. It's not just a film, it's a universe. At the end, I felt like I went on the best sojourn of my life and I can't wait to travel to Wakanda again.