“We had to maintain the lie”
It’s easy to forget how important Creed was to getting this specific Black Panther made. From Wesley Snipes wanting to get something off the ground in the 1990s, to Kevin Feige courting Ava DuVernay as director post-Selma success, things could have been very different. Hiring Ryan Coogler before his Rocky sequel took the box office by storm with almost universal critical acclaim would have made it very different, too. Suddenly the man who made his name off the fantastic indie Fruitvale Station was a proven Hollywood commodity. And seeing DuVernay pass with the realization that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was and would always be a product above art, Coogler’s interest was a prominent black voice that couldn’t be ignored. So when Ryan demanded concessions on their end, Feige complied.
Not only would he develop the script with Joe Robert Cole, Coogler would also hire his own crew including cinematographer Rachel Morrison and editor Michael P. Shawver. This may not seem like much, but it’s crucial to ensuring that his vision and style show through a franchise that has utilized many of the same people to create an otherwise cohesive if staid aesthetic. Creed‘s success gave him just enough leverage to make his mark and maybe Black Panther‘s inevitable hundreds of millions will show Marvel what that type of leeway can provide—especially to demographics they still regard as “niche.” Letting Taika Waititi inject some Polynesian flavor to Thor: Ragnarok and allowing Coogler to maintain his property’s important political propulsion will inspire more than it could ever alienate.
So don’t be surprised when his tale of Wakanda includes more allusions to blackness than does its tribal-inspired wardrobe. Coogler isn’t playing around when he lets a character in this big budget superhero film aimed at worldwide appeal say, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who knew death was a better end than bondage.” Subtlety is unnecessary because anyone with eyes can see our planet hasn’t changed as much as it thinks. This property exists beyond The Avengers and thus its origin must exist in a vacuum outside of it, too. Wakanda is a nation hidden from sight, an insular community with the technology to end poverty that refuses to expose itself to the plague that enslaved its brothers and sisters. A stance that eventually proves indefensible.
It’s therefore no coincidence that we arrive at its advanced civilization cloaked under the trees during a moment of succession. If you saw Captain America: Civil War you will remember that King T’Chaka (John Kani) was murdered, leaving the Wakandan throne vacant and ready for his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)—the current “Black Panther” (a warrior augmented by an ancient locally-sourced herb empowering its people’s chosen protector with strength and healing power). Since that the kingdom is made up of four tribes with a fifth under self-exile in the mountains, all royalty is allowed the opportunity to challenge via ritual battle. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) decline, while M’Baku (Winston Duke) fails. And there’s another unbeknownst to them all with similar aspirations.
But what does it mean to takeover a kingdom, following in the footsteps of someone great despite his ambitions (or lack thereof) being shortsighted? Add a secret that’s all but unforgiveable and you must wonder if everything you’ve known has been a lie. Maybe this savior is actually an unwitting enemy. Maybe it’s a sign that someone new should take control—someone from another tribe with a different vision of what Wakanda can and should be in a changing world with too many hardships to blindly turn away from, unfazed. Unlike Thor‘s monarchy where a successor was to be announced without dissention only to see the top choice forced into a trial able to ignite his latent maturity (the definition of white male privilege), this nation possesses true complexity.
Its past has allowed an outsider who has lived his life with a throne he’s never seen as his number one priority (Michael B. Jordan‘s Erik Killmonger) to have a legitimate claim. Its rules have alowed him to arrive uninvited and take that seat with the full support of a military and public steeped in nationalistic pride and fidelity above tyrannical madness. This means Black Panther is as much a look at the potential of what people of color can do with the same resources as their white counterparts as it is a scathing commentary on America today. Here’s the greatest nation that ever was sealing off its borders with exactly the type of person who shouldn’t have his finger on the trigger lording over it.
Coogler has envisioned this nation at a turning point, pitting party-line allegiance against autonomous, altruistic thought. He and Cole have drawn numerous mirrors to show divisions between those who could be considered as close as family. They sow the divisiveness between soldier (Danai Gurira‘s General Okoye) and spy (Nyong’o’s Nakia); old guard (Duke’s M’Baku embracing tradition) and new (Wright’s teenage Shuri being given full command of the country’s scientific establishment); patient yet vengeful (T’Challa) and impulsively cruel (Killmonger). They place characters in positions that allow them to compromise their hearts for action (Kaluuya’s W’Kabi) and put outsiders who can’t quite be trusted into positions where trust is survival (Martin Freeman‘s Everett K. Ross). They write a civil war able to wake the establishment up to its inexcusable past.
And they do it effortlessly. From the opening montage of soaring history seamlessly moving between eras like an abridged time-lapse, to the slickly dangerous and tons of fun heist that introduces Killmonger’s villainy alongside familiar baddie Klaue (Andy Serkis). The economy of plot is genius. Fight scenes are never drawn out because their exposition and aftermath is where the real intrigue lies. Black Panther is more espionage thriller with political coup than fantasy action adventure. Only one person at a time is allowed superpowers, and he must earn the throne by sparring without them (the herb can take its gifts as well as provide). So aside from the climactic CGI battle between costumed kings (which itself is often tempered by conversation), every fight is punishing, acrobatic, and human.
There’s expert choreography rather than explosive blasters or flying shields. When war breaks loose it’s fought with spears and swords (and armored rhinos) as opposed to bullets and bombs. So a long shot filmed within a casino can move from Gurira spinning a bo around her neck before jumping to a lower level as Nyong’o and Boseman engage other bad guys below without the fabricated elasticity of impossible mutant theatrics. Everything is grounded in science, breakthroughs for which we have just begun to acknowledge, their potential realized as fully formed inventions put to use by a 16-year-old mind that rivals and surpasses Tony Stark himself. The marriage of technology and mysticism (with Forest Whitaker‘s shaman-like advisor) perfectly measured so it never falls prey to cartoon exaggeration.
And there’s anger in every frame—something Marvel has shied away from for too long. This is a kingdom striving for benevolence that isn’t beholden to it. For all of Steve Rogers’ independence and Stark’s toys, they’re mired in a capitalistic framework and chain of command T’Challa transcends by being king. This means good and bad can die for the story’s benefit. It means that Black Panther can be weightier than its comic brethren by not falling into the same traps of bleeding hearts unable to make the hard choices. We get sacrifice and hubris. We get characters impacted by what’s happening rather than trapped inside a way of life that diminishes their moral compasses. There are no Gods, just men with God-like power who think before they act.
This film is first and foremost about humanity. It’s about letting the best person for the job perform, no matter age or gender. It’s about honor and pride being just as blinding as they are illuminating. If Nakia wanted the throne she could have fought T’Challa to be queen. No one questions Okoye’s position as head of the military because she earned it with skill. Wakanda is a progressive kingdom that uses the world’s racism as a means to be dismissed and left alone in order to create something we can only dream of seeing come to fruition. But even in hiding its ego manufactured skeletons with long memories. It’s a history in which heroes and villains are separated by a single decision that is out of their hands. It’s life.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 134 minutes | Release Date: February 16th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Ryan Coogler
Writer(s): Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole / Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (comics)