I had a bit of trepidation in going to see the new Black Panther movie because of all the hype surrounding it. Lately, it seems that the media picks a movie to champion for some political reason, and if the public doesn’t agree it’s because we’re stupid or bigoted. For example, I found Jordan Peele’s celebrated Get Out to be a serious disappointment. I feared the same would be true of Black Panther, but it was actually a pretty good movie.
Black Panther is Marvel’s latest superhero movie directed by Ryan Coogler and based on an African super-hero character who was invented by two white guys (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) in 1966. The character actually predates the violent radical movement of the same name. Some of the reviews, in the amnesiac fashion of our media, want to pretend that this was the first action movie with a black hero, forgetting everything from Shaft to Blade to Independence Day. We need to put this nonsense aside and judge the movie on its own merits.
As a superhero movie, Black Panther has all the necessary elements – a noble hero, an evil yet roguishly cool villain, an imminent peril, and lots of exciting fight scenes. Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) is also King T’Challa of the secretive African nation of Wakanda, which owes its wealth and amazing technology to a rare mineral called vibranium. They keep their good fortune hidden, fearing the negative influences of the outside world. T’Chala’s estranged American cousin Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) a spec-ops soldier-turned-criminal appears to challenge him for both the throne and the role of Black Panther. Killmonger wants to use the vibranium’s power as a weapon to instigate revolutions on behalf of black people everywhere. The ensuing struggle between the two men unfolds with shootouts and car chases in different cities around the world. The warfare it causes between Wakanda’s normally peaceful tribes makes for non-stop action.
As I expected, Black Panther is riddled with sanitized Hollywood cliches about primitive but noble third-worlders – despite their high-tech cities, many Wakandans still herd goats for a living. On the plus side are some memorable roles, including Letitia Wright as Suri, T’Chala’s brainy kid sister, Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue the obligatory white bad guy, Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of the king’s all- female guard, and of course Jordan as Killmonger. The title role, while competently acted by Boseman, just isn’t as interesting as these side characters. (Usually that’s mostly a problem with DC superheroes.)
The movie and its rather blatant black power message have provoked an interesting reaction from bloggers on the right. Wakanda, they say, has the right idea: strong borders, respect for tradition, and a policy of minding their own business. Yet these policies, wise as they are, is a source of tension in the film. Can T’Challa save his nation from war, corruption and the temptations of the outside world? You can guess the answer, though I won’t spoil it by revealing how things turn out.
Though there’s a strong element of social commentary, it doesn’t ruin the film. I wouldn’t take its politics seriously either; they’re a gross oversimplification of the complex problems of Africa. I will say that it’s a refreshing change to see a movie that celebrates heroism. It’s a great action flick in the superhero tradition, and anyone who likes that will enjoy Black Panther.
Note on image: The cool panther logo decorating both sides is from the insignia of the Black Panther Tank Batallion, an African-American unit from World War II.