[Spoilers are avoided]
Interesting movies should offer lots of potential for disappointment and good, interesting movies create their own pitfalls and somehow avoid them. Black Panther had lots of capacity to be awful – the concept of a hidden kingdom in the centre of Africa was used in the original comics as the background for the character of the Black Panther but drew on the colonial era tropes from H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. While not the most negative view of Africa to appear in Western literature, it was still a perspective on the continent derived from the prejudices and privileges of European colonisation. A myth of hidden wealth that was there if only you could find it.
Those influences are still there in this film but re-appropriated. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new king of Wakanda and the titular Black Panther – a Wakandan who is also part of world affairs, while his country’s technological and economic advancement remains hidden. Rather than a process of discovery, we first see Wakanda through his eyes as he returns home to be crowned king. Wakanda from then one becomes a central character of the film – one of the most fully imagined fictional countries I think I’ve ever seen on screen. Aside from subverting or rejecting tropes about African nations, it also shows Wakanda as a country of multiple indigenous cultures and lifestyles. Across this clever mix of costumes and implied cultural traditions is an Afro-futurism and technological utopian in which people live both an urban and traditional pastoral existence cut off from the outside.
Both ethically and in terms of plot inevitability that isolation can’t continue and the tension of the idea in terms of Wakanda’s potential impact on the world drives the rest of the story forward. An exiled man of royal blood seeks a way home (Michael B Jordan) and a new purpose for Wakanda; an old enemy Ulysese Claw is intent on cynical destruction (a gleefully appalling Andy Serkis); the CIA has become curious about Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War (in the form of Martin Freeman).
While not quite a simple male/female split, the conflict between Wakanda being forced to change by external forces versus it finding new paths of its own highlights the roles of key Wakandan characters. Shuri (Letitia Wright) T’Challa’s younger sister encapsulates Wakanda’s own technological modernism and a move away from tradition and ritual. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is an agent of Wakanda acting outside of the country (we first meet her on a mission to rescue girls captured by a militant group in an unnamed African country) who sees a role for Wakanda outside its borders. Okoye (Danai Gurira) as head of the Wakandan all-female special forces and royal guard offers a more conservative, isolationist view. While their perspectives on Wakanda’s future are different, they are portrayed as people working together in the common interests of the nation. Difference versus conflict.
Of course, for plot reasons, conflict gets the upper hand.
The politics of Wakanda are not utopian. It has flaws and aspects of the story are inevitably reactionary – you really can’t have a film about a king trying to hold onto his throne when faced by a usurper without implying some sort of endorsement for monarchy as a system of government. Wakanda’s isolationism and refusal to act in other’s affairs also adds a complex layer to the nation as a character. Wakanda is itself a superhero and like all superheroes, we are left wondering why they only act when they do. Given Superman’s powers could he not have resolved a thousand world conflicts and given Wakanda’s technological and military advantages, could it not have done more? Where Black Panther rises above other superhero films is that it begins to make these questions overt and pertinent. Whether a superhero or a nation should act and when should they act if they have to power to do so? How to act without becoming a petty tyrant or hegemonic power?
You can worry about those issues or you can sit back and enjoy the stunning visuals or, best of all, you can do both. It’s a popcorn movie and a movie that sets up a series of questions about power (without resolving them). It has its own extended James Bond movie elements (form a Q-like briefing on gadgets to a showdown in a casino) and its own Ruritarian romance elements. Getting all that to work and also be a seamless piece with the rest of the Marvel movies is itself a remarkable accomplishment. That it is also a very entertaining film is what makes it really rather good.
Gorgeous, fun and riveting.