Written by Anna Harrison
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Finally (?), Marvel gets a Best Picture nomination!
Black Panther was a long time coming. Wesley Snipes almost played the character in the 1990s, but the movie stayed on the backburner for years as Marvel Studios adapted and shifted; once the MCU was spawned, Ike Perlmutter dragged his feet as he thought a movie with a black lead wouldn’t sell (though Kevin Feige pushed for it), a move he would also pull with Captain Marvel. When Chadwick Boseman was finally announced as T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the Black Panther, there were issues finding a director, with Ava DuVernay publicly passing on the movie, until Marvel finally settled on Ryan Coogler after his success with Creed. And so at long last, 25 years after Wesley Snipes first announced that he would make a Black Panther movie (and 11 years after Snipes’ IRS issues came to light), Black Panther arrived on our screens.
And what an arrival it was. Black Panther became the top-grossing film of all time in the United States, surpassing The Avengers, and became the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time for a while, before it would be pushed to number 12. It spawned thinkpieces, it spawned memes, it garnered Marvel’s only Best Picture nomination. In short, Black Panther was a cultural reset.
It’s easy to see how Black Panther sparked such conversation. It breaks the monotonously white landscape of superhero films, but Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole don’t just stick Boseman in a role that could have been played by yet another Chris: Black Panther is “steeped very specifically and purposely in its blackness,” as Carvell Wallace writes, but not steeped in the misery porn that so often populates movies about underrepresented groups. It’s a story about a very isolationist African country called Wakanda that went untouched by colonialism and was able to flourish due to the abundance of vibranium, the same metal which made Captain America’s shield, and, most notably, the absence of Europe and slave traders. Wakanda is a veritable paradise, one where there is no diaspora and where the royal line has ruled for years and years without being trampled by the white European world, a tantalizing “what if” scenario playing out before our very eyes in vibrant color.
Legendary costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, both of whom would go on to net Oscars for their work, give Wakanda a rich, vibrant, Afrofuturist aesthetic that immediately sets it apart from its Westernized contemporaries, and Carter seamlessly integrates traditional African dress with Wakanda’s advanced technology. Wakanda’s advancements do not leave their origins behind, but rather they bring tradition with them, and those traditions are never otherized or looked down on as they so often are in other Hollywood movies—instead, they’re celebrated. Black Panther is infectiously and joyously rooted in Africa.
Yet all is not happy in Wakanda. After King T’Chaka’s (John Kani) death in Captain America: Civil War, his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), must ascend to the throne and accept the mantle of both king and Black Panther—and the responsibilities that come with both. This involves ritual combat, which seems an odd thing to linger in a country so many light years ahead of anywhere else (Wakanda’s monarchy, too, seems outdated, but playing around with a royal family is always good fun, and it’s a lot easier for scripts to have one leader with a few councilors rather than deal with the hassle of politicking elections), but allows for the introduction of a plot point that will come back later as well as the character of M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the reclusive Jabari tribe, who is an absolute scene-stealer—no small feat, seeing as he gets surrounded by veteran performers such as Angela Bassett as Ramonda, the Queen Mother, and Forest Whitaker as Zuri, an elder statesman.
Of course, at the heart of Black Panther lies the late Chadwick Boseman, whose magnetic performance as T’Challa made him—both the character and the actor—an iconic beacon of hope that continues to shine after Boseman’s passing. His supporting cast get their due as well: there’s Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sister and scientific genius, who provides most of the comedy; there’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s ex and also a competent spy in her own right; and there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the Dora Milaje, a group of women warriors who protect the king. These three vibrant women all have distinct characters and inner lives despite their supporting roles, something which cannot be said for other MCU ladies (Sharon Carter, Betty Ross, Natasha Romanoff at various points, the list goes on), and Shuri and Nakia both have had their names thrown around as the next Black Panther; it’s refreshing to see such a varied group of women where even the “designated love interest” has agency and goals of her own.
T’Challa defeats M’Baku, securing his crown, but another problem soon rears its head: Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who first appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron, has resurfaced in Korea with some stolen vibranium. T’Challa goes to stop Klaue with Nakia and Okoye in tow (their color palette—Nakia green, T’Challa black, and Okoye red—represents the pan-African flag), but Klaue is rescued by a certain someone bearing a ring identical to T’Challa’s. But tenuous ally Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, reprising his role from Civil War) gets shot, which grinds the mission to a halt as T’Challa brings Ross back to Wakanda to heal him, despite Okoye’s protests that bringing an outsider to Wakanda puts them all at risk.
The certain someone responsible for Klaue’s escape goes by the name of Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan with a remarkable mix of ferocity and vulnerability, and from his opening scene accosting a museum worker (“How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”), he cements himself as not only one of the MCU’s most iconic villains, but one of its most iconic characters.
Killmonger is also the MCU’s most political creation. Born N’Jadaka, Killmonger is the son of Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown, shown in flashbacks) and the cousin to T’Challa; when N’Jobu was on assignment as a spy in America, he had a child with an American woman, and so Wakandan royal Killmonger was born in Oakland (where Coogler hails from). When N’Jobu came face-to-face with the realities of life as a black man outside of Wakanda, and especially in America, he became angry at his brother’s isolationist policies and so worked with Klaue to help arm dispossessed black people around the world to revolt and overthrow their oppressors. T’Chaka, determined to maintain Wakanda’s peace and isolation at all costs, killed his brother, leaving Killmonger behind in Oakland while he returned to his palace and lied about what happened to N’Jobu. It’s a harsh backstory, exposing the flaws in both Western and Wakandan society: America treats black men like N’Jobu with hostility, but Wakanda remains so determined to protect its own it damages those in less welcoming places.
Killmonger, now all grown up, has the same goal as his father with an added bonus: “I want the throne,” he says, as the throne is the most direct way to enact change. “You are all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. There’s about two billion people around the world who look like us, and their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” The mere existence of Killmonger’s radicalism is a pretty damning condemnation of the way the world outside Wakanda, and in particular America, treats black men. And, the thing is, he’s not wrong—in fact, there was a whole lot of “Killmonger was right” sentiment floating around after Black Panther’s release.
Killmonger is simultaneously Marvel at its most finessed, but also at its most blunt: as with Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the movie has to work overtime to establish Killmonger’s villainy so the audience doesn’t root for him. This is most obvious when Killmonger shoots Klaue through his girlfriend (Nabiyah Be): this girlfriend adds nothing to the story, existing only to be killed so Killmonger officially becomes a Bad Guy whose aims might be good but whose methods are decidedly not. He even challenges T’Challa to ritual combat, tosses him off the side of a cliff, and seizes the throne, in case you were still feeling sympathetic to this guy.
Killmonger then imbibes the heart-shaped herb which gives the taker the strength of the Black Panther, and while he undergoes this ritual, he gets transported to the Ancestral Plane. When T’Challa did this exact same thing earlier in the film, his Ancestral Plane looked like the African savannah; when Killmonger takes the herb, he gets transported to his childhood apartment in Oakland, showing how his diasporic existence cut him off from his home and left him stranded between two worlds, neither of which accept him. It’s a powerful scene showing the traumatic effects of the African diaspora and how its effects linger even for those born outside, like Killmonger, and that inescapable pain reduces the killer to a child (literally, as Seth Carr steps in for Jordan).
Yet the potency of the scene fades as Killmonger, with very little resistance, begins to send out vibranium weapons to Wakandan war dogs around the world so that the oppressed become the oppressors. The movie weakens here as it heads towards its climax, a visually nondescript brawl between various Wakandan factions that reinforces how utterly baffling it is that the world’s most advanced country still has a monarchy able to be overthrown without a moment’s notice with no infrastructure in place to prevent a tyrant from taking over. T’Challa comes back after being rescued by M’Baku and the Jabari tribe, there’s an unconvincing heel turn from his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, astoundingly underused), and everything snowballs towards a manufactured civil war (civil skirmish, more accurately) that, like in Captain America: Civil War’s airport fight, lacks a strong logical reason and only exists so the audience can see people beating each other up. It would have been far more interesting and effective to work to bring down Killmonger in a way that does not involve ritual combat, instead focusing on espionage and spy tactics, but I guess we have to get that bombastic Marvel ending. (To the battle’s credit, it involves war rhinos, which is absolutely absurd and absolutely amazing. War! Rhinos!)
Luckily, after the battle, introspection returns. “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” Killmonger says before he dies, a harsh line that snaps everything into perspective for T’Challa. He recognizes the truth in Killmonger’s words, and the movie ends with Wakanda stepping out of the shadows. Killmonger was so wracked by pain and anger that he became his oppressors (like, not really though, but that’s what the movie wants us to think), but T’Challa recognizes that, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.” So Wakanda helps achieve equality not through radicalism, which is Evil, but through working with U.N. bureaucracy, which always works.
Upon rewatch, when the hubbub around Black Panther’s impact has died down, its weaknesses become more apparent. It’s a film whose cultural impact has overshadowed the flaws in its script (and its CGI, as has been discussed at length elsewhere, so I won’t linger on it except to say that for a studio with so much money, Marvel can really miss the mark with their VFX: for every Thanos, there’s a Killmonger/T’Challa fight in the vibranium mines), which goes for function over character.
The best scenes come when the movie can combine these two—when Black Panther focuses on the here and now instead of the next scene, its emotional power in the MCU is hard to match; unfortunately, that happens rarely: most lines serve only as gateways to the next scene and tell the audience what will happen before it does so, feeling clunky and awkward. When the marriage of function and character does happen, you have strong scenes like Okoye and Nakia arguing the different ways to protect their country (a scene which also stands out as one of the few MCU scenes, at least until Captain Marvel, that features two women talking on screen with nary a man in sight), or Killmonger facing his father, or T’Challa facing his father and acknowledging how Wakanda’s isolation hurts others.
Even with its flaws, though, nothing can take away the success of Black Panther—not necessarily as a movie in and of itself, but as a cultural moment that sparked a reassessing of not only the movie landscape but the social one. “Wakanda forever” became a common saying, and it wasn’t unusual to see someone with their arms crossed over their chest in a Wakandan salute. Here was a huge, tentpole movie, and from a studio that tends to tiptoe around political issues to boot, that addressed ideas of racism and isolationism while giving the world an inspiring black superhero who could go toe-to-toe with any of the largely white pantheon of superheroes. Black Panther might not be Marvel’s best film (and didn’t deserve that Best Picture nomination, let’s be honest), but it digs into the unsavory aspects of our world in a way that no other MCU feature even attempts to, and the way it resonated with viewers was, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence—and nothing can take away from that.
Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
- Bucky (Sebastian Stan), aka “broken white boy” number one, shows up in the credits like he’s going to be a key player in Avengers: Infinity War. He is not.
- Shuri exclaims, “What are thooooose!” in reference to this Vine, which is very much in-line with what a 2017 teenager would do, but also immediately dates the movie. Like, really dates it.
- The so-called Museum of Great Britain is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which is one of the more obvious Atlanta landmarks and very funny to see when it’s supposed to be London.
- For what it’s worth, M’Baku and Nakia are my top picks for the next Black Panther. (With the multiverse now opened, people are vying for a variant Killmonger to take up the mantle, but What If…? seemed to put a nail in that coffin by having their own variant Killmonger who showed up and immediately started murdering people.)
Anna’s Favorite Scene: Killmonger has a talk with his dad, N’Jobu, in the Ancestral Plane. Sterling K. Brown, though he has limited screentime, is absolutely superb, and brings immense depth to this relationship within the span of a handful of minutes. (Close second: T’Challa on the Ancestral Plane, round two, where he confronts the flaws of Wakanda more closely.)
MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Black Panther, 12. Doctor Strange, 13. Ant-Man, 14. Thor, 15. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 16. Thor: The Dark World, 17. Iron Man 2, 18. The Incredible Hulk
Black Panther Trailer