Okay, so last night, I watched Black Panther (2018) and loved it. Actually, for me, picking up the main themes wasn’t difficult at all, and yes it is more than just another superhero story. It’s both the epic tale of a new King who is struggling to determine the direction of his nation, and a spiritual journey for personal truth, especially between father and son.
I’m not being frivolous or unkind when I say that the latter reminded me of the 1994 Disney film The Lion King. After all, Simba (voiced by Matthew Broderick) has to come to terms with his guilt over his father Mufasa’s (voiced by James Earl Jones) death and his worthiness to become a King. He is also challenged by his rival Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons) and must risk death fighting for the right to ascend the throne.
Oh, by the way, spoiler alert. I’ll be dropping plenty of them, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop reading here.
Legendary Wakanda has historically been known as a poverty-stricken third world country in eastern Africa. However the secret legend of the nation includes a large meteor made of Vibranium, supposedly the hardest metal known, crashing down on Wakanda in ancient times.
Five tribes lived in the area, and four agreed to be ruled under a single King in order to build a nation upon the wealth this rare metal affords. Only one tribe refused, choosing to make their territory in the nearby mountains.
For centuries, Wakanda has hidden its true nature as the most technologically advanced people on Earth, boasting a futuristic lifestyle found only in science fiction. At the same time, they have retained their cultural traditions and pride, and the four tribes live together in peace.
However, all of that is dependent on the outside world never, ever knowing the real Wakanda, so the capital city, built on top of the Vibranium horde, is shielded by a holographic illusion and force field. Wakanda is an isolationist nation sharing neither its immense wealth or technology with anyone.
However, they do send spies into all the other nations, known as “war dogs,” and thereby hangs the tale.
In Oakland in 1992, T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka’s (the younger version played by Atandwa Kani) brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) is a war dog who is seen, apparently, planning some sort of crime with a confederate, who is also secretly a Wakandan war dog named Zuri. T’Chaka accuses N’Jobu of helping South African black marketeer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) steal a sizable amount of Vibranium. A fight ensues, and in order to save Zuri’s life, T’Chaka is forced to kill N’Jobu. What isn’t immediately revealed, is that N’Jobu had fallen in love with an American woman and had a son by him. T’Chaka knew this, but chose not to take his young nephew back to Wakanda with him, which turns out to be a horrible mistake.
I won’t describe the whole plot, but those details were necessary for the rest of the review.
Much of the movie centers about Wakanda’s future relative to the rest of the planet’s nations. T’Challa’s former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who is also a war dog, strongly believes that Wakanda has a responsibility to the rest of the world, particularly the impoverished peoples of the African nations. We first see her undercover in an effort to break up a human trafficking ring. T’Challa and the majority of Wakandans, including his mother Ayo (Florence Kasumba), 16-year-old genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira) all believe in continuing their nation’s stringent isolationist policy, and that revealing themselves to the outside world would destroy their uniqueness and make their country vulnerable to exploitation.
As it turns out, there is another party who believes Wakanda should “share” as well.
N’Jobu’s son is a child in 1992, but his father told him about Wakanda, his heritage, and even left behind a written record detailing the nation’s secrets. The son is Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) whose Wakandan name is N’Jadaka. He becomes an American Black-ops soldier and a highly ruthless and efficient killer. I can’t find anything online, but I think the film mentioned that he also graduated from MIT, so he’s highly intelligent and well-educated.
He joins forces with Klaue, who after losing a hand in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), has it replaced with a lifelike prosthetic that transforms into a powerful sonic weapon, mirroring the weapon used by the comic book version of Klaue. He has escaped Wakandan justice for thirty years, and Killmonger helps Klaue’s organization steal Vibranium artifacts. This, however, is just a front for his true goal, which is killing Klaue and using his corpse as his way into Wakanda so he can challenge T’Challa for the right to rule. As T’Challa’s cousin, he also has royal blood, and as silly as it may sound to me, any royal can challenge the King to ritual combat (to the death) at any time, and T’Challa has to have his panther powers removed for the fight.
Killmonger does defeat T’Challa, and apparently kills him. He becomes King, over the objections of Nakia, Ayo, and Shuri, but the law allows him to seize the throne, no matter how unqualified he is to lead a nation. He orders Wakandan advanced weaponry to be sent, via war dogs, to marginalized populations in several major cities as a prelude to taking over all the nations of the world using an army of the oppressed of each country.
Fortunately, T’Challa’s ally, CIA Agent Everett K. Ross (I had a lot of fun watching Martin Freeman speak with an American accent) who is an ex-Air Force fighter pilot, shoots down the air transports, keeping the weapons from leaving Wakandan air space.
Okoye’s loyalty to the throne is absolute, no matter who is sitting on it, so she backs Killmonger in battle, even when it is revealed that T’Challa is still alive. Since T’Challa didn’t die, thanks to M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the mountain tribe of Jabari, the challenge was never completed, and ultimately, as you might expect, T’Challa is victorious.
The film was all but flawless. Yes, they had some problems with physics, and even with the Wakandan version of the super soldier formula and a high-tech nano-suit, he shouldn’t have been able to do half of the things he did. Not only that, but Okoye, who didn’t have any of that, just rigorous training and a warrior’s heart, pretty much did the impossible as well. Also the “hidden city in the heart of the jungle would have been really difficult to maintain in the modern age.
A friend of mine said the film had problems with history and geography, but I can’t speak to that, and this is a fictional universe, so it doesn’t have to mirror ours 100%
As part of the ritual to become the Black Panther, a liquid made from a rare plant grown only in a special room in the Wakandan palace, must be consumed. When drinking the herb, both T’Challa and Killmonger have to lie down in what looks like red sand, and after drinking, they enter a trance and are completely buried (by children no less).
T’Challa goes into a dream state and has a vision of his father. This actually occurs twice and on the second occasion, he confronts T’Chaka on his decision to leave his young cousin behind in Oakland rather than returning him to Wakanda.
Killmonger also has a vision of his father, paralleling T’Challa’s, which further reveals their relationship and how N’Jobu tattooed the inside of his son’s lip in traditional Wakandan fashion, apparently teaching him some of the Wakandan language, and promising one day to show his son a sunset in his home country, which he said was the most beautiful in the world.
I have to believe that a culture as highly ritualized as this one has a strong spiritual/religious tradition as well, which is refreshing since the entertainment industry tends to steer away from such topics. This allows T’Challa as the ancestral king, to have a mystic as well as a worldly quality, and as both the hereditary and spiritual leader of Wakanda, he transcends the usual superhero trope and enters the world of his nation’s savior.
In a very real sense, only Klaue is the bad guy. He’s a ruthless murderer whose only motivation is profit and to have fun at it. No one is sorry when Killmonger shoots him and delivers his corpse to Wakanda.
Killmonger, even though he is also ruthless and kills his own girlfriend to get to Klaue, is more complex. His relationship to T’Challa is more like Loki’s to Thor, although they never grew up together. He’s the abandoned outcast seeking belonging and approval, not from his father but from his people. He, like Nakia, also believes Wakanda should help the disadvantaged people groups of the world, but being a soldier rather than a true leader, he believes it should be accomplished by violent revolution.
However, it didn’t make sense to order all of the plants that render the Black Panther powers be burned. After all, he’s not going to live forever, and especially given his relationship with his own father, wouldn’t he want his own son (or daughter) to become ruler one day?
In spite of the enmity between T’Challa and Killmonger, T’Challa shows his true kingship by showing mercy to Erik after he defeats him. As Erik is dying, T’Challa shows him a sunset which, in the end, fulfills his father’s promise. Yes, Killmonger is bloodthirsty and ruthless, but the film allows the audience to see his motivations, and although a criminal and a killer, he still seems sympathetic in his final moments.
Although conflicted at times, T’Challa’s emergence as King is magnificent. I actually liked him more out of costume in a way. This is the real Black Panther, the ruler, the wise and benevolent King, his mother’s son, Shuri’s big brother, and absolute monarch.
Okoye and Nakia are yin and yang, the former being a soldier and the latter a spy, both serving their nation proudly, but Okoye being more devoted to the throne than the man who would be King. Okoye is more physically bad ass, but Nakia is more thoughtful of her actions and the reasons behind them.
Shuri is, you should pardon the expression, cute as a button, and although a brilliant scientist and engineer, she still retains that “perky” kid sister aura. However, I did have one problem with her. In the South Korean sequence of the film, as Killmonger is rescuing Klaue from being held by the CIA, Ross is shot saving Nakia’s life. It’s a serious spinal injury that can’t be repaired by conventional medicine, but Ross can be saved using Wakandan technology. Over Okoye’s objections, T’Challa takes Ross back with them to Wakanda and turns the dying agent over to his sister.
As Shuri is preparing to perform surgery, she mutters “Great! Another broken white boy for us to fix.” Based on the end credits scene, she has to be talking about Bucky Barnes (Stan Sebastian), but I really didn’t appreciate the “white boy” slur, and wonder what sort of motive co-writer and director Ryan Coogler had in including it.
Everett Ross was played as a competent CIA agent and not as comic relief the way he is in the comic books, and Freeman turned in a good performance. I’ve seen every single episode of Sherlock and I love his John Watson. It’s great to see him in a different role (yes, I know he played a hobbit, too). Given the nature of this film, there are very few white people, and he is the only hero. That’s okay, since Hollywood has produced an untold number of movies with mostly white people as heroes and only a few people of color. I do hope we see Ross again in future Black Panther movies, because he’s a good ally for T’Challa and Wakanda.
M’Baku and the Jabari are another set of “outcasts” from Wakanda, although they walked out centuries ago rather than having been abandoned. When T’Challa is apparently killed by Killmonger, Ayo, Nakia, Shuri, and Ross turn to the Man-Ape, as he’s described in the comic books, offering him the only “Black Panther” plant that survived, so he could have the power to stop Killmonger. It’s at that point he reveals that T’Challa is alive and in a coma.
In spite of him having challenged T’Challa to combat for the throne and been defeated by him, M’Baku does not claim the plant nor the throne, but instead allows T’Challa to take back the power. Winston Duke plays him as rough around the edges and with plenty of swagger, but T’Challa was right to call him honorable, and he does make a good point about how no one from Wakanda has visited his tribe in centuries. They only turn to him when all other options are exhausted, again displaying how Wakanda traditionally isolates itself inside its own cocoon, leaving even the Jabari to fend for themselves.
I’m leaving a lot of other characters out, but this review is long enough as it is, and I’m not finished yet.
T’Challa’s entire ordeal, especially the consequences of his father not bringing little Erik back to Wakanda with him over twenty-five years ago, lead the King to one conclusion; Wakanda cannot remain apart from the rest of the world. At the end of the film, T’Challa addresses the United Nations and pledges to provide aid to any needy countries. One delegate asks just how a poverty-stricken third world nation is going to accomplish this, and the look on T’Challa’s face is priceless.
In the mid-credits scene, we see T’Challa and Shuri at the same Oakland apartment complex where T’Chaka killed N’Jobu, and where his son Erik Stevens grew up. In the 1992 scene at the film’s beginning, a bunch of kids are playing basketball outside, including young Erik. Here, we see another group of children doing the same, but the building displays a notice that it is due to be torn down.
Answering one of Shuri’s quips, T’Challa says he’s bought that building and a number of others in the area that will be used as cultural and education centers for the local community, which is T’Challa’s answer to sharing Wakanda with the world. Then he remotely makes his hovering futuristic aircraft visible and lands it in the street. While all the other children rush over to it, one boy walks up to T’Challa and asks, “Is that yours?”
In the after credits scene, we see a group of little girls in Wakanda staring at a sleeping man, both in fascination and amusement. They run away as he awakens, and Bucky Barnes, without his bionic arm, emerges from a hut. Shuri is there to meet him, addressing him as “Sgt. Barnes,” to which he replies “Bucky,” however, the girls refer to him as “White Wolf,” which is a title that follows Bucky into the film Avengers: Infinity War (2018) which I’ll review at a later date.
The Black Panther/Avengers: Infinity War Connection
However, given comments by African-American author and screenwriter Steven Barnes about how T’Challa and Wakanda are treated differently in Infinity War, than in “Black Panther,” I have to render my take.
According to Barnes, T’Challa should never have (spoiler alert again) taken the wounded Vision (Paul Bettany) into Wakanda and defended him against the forces of Thanos (Josh Brolin) in an attempt to remove the mind stone. He placed his nation at risk of almost certain defeat, which a King would not do. Also, almost all of the male Wakandans were killed when Thanos eliminated half of the intelligent life in the universe, which, for him, is another in an endless series of deaths by black people for the sake of white people. He attributes this to “Black Panther” being written and directed by an African-American, while “Infinity War” directors Anthony and Joe Russo are white.
I don’t believe he’s saying that the Russos were deliberately racist, but it goes along with his belief that if you are creating a work where the primary characters are black, it is best that it is written/directed by an African-American, relative to portraying the characters based on a lived black experience.
I can’t argue with that in many cases, but I must respectfully disagree that T’Challa wouldn’t have taken the Vision and the rest of the Avengers into his nation. First of all, the fate of not only the planet Earth, but the entire universe was at stake. If T’Challa simply handed the Vision and/or mind stone over to Thanos, he would enable the mass murder of half of the universe’s intelligent species.
In “Black Panther,” T’Challa already showed his willingness to open Wakanda up to the world, potentially putting the nation at risk by revealing its true nature. He did this because doing good, and helping vulnerable and exploited populations is more important and compassionate than hording all the advanced goodies for yourself, even if it is out of fear of the world’s corrupt and warring nations. To the best of my knowledge, no one complained about how that film ended.
This is no different, except the stakes are way, way higher. At this point, Wakanda is the only thing standing between Thanos and the power to commit genocide on a universal scale. As Shuri attempts to remove the mind stone without killing the Vision, T’Challa leads Wakandan forces, backed up by the Avengers, in a battle to delay an army long enough for Shuri to succeed in removing the stone so Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) can destroy it.
It was the only decision to make, because the alternative would be to go back to being an isolationist nation and letting the rest of the world burn. The problem with that is Thanos would succeed anyway and, assuming Thanos destroyed each sub-population evenly, half of the people in Wakanda would perish as a result of T’Challa doing nothing.
Now as far as most of the black characters dying, leaving a remnant of white characters, I get his point. The distribution should have been more even, if the primary consideration is equality, racial awareness, and how African-American audiences were going to receive those scenes, given how many films have already depicted black people dying for the sake of white people.
I don’t know. Maybe the survivors live for the sake of the next Avengers movie, and those particular characters are critical to bringing everybody else back. That’s the only justification I can see. Otherwise, it could have been written differently.
However, I don’t have an African-American lived experience to draw from, so I can’t “feel” what Mr. Barnes feels. My perspective is different. From that perspective, I’d have to say, of course it hurts. It’s supposed to be tragic. Everyone we’ve come to love from the “Black Panther” film is either killed or horribly abandoned and grief-stricken, so yes, it’s awful, and agonizing, and miserable.
But, according to the comic books (which I haven’t read), they all come back, so there is hope. The Infinity Gauntlet is capable of literally anything. It’s like Aladdin’s lamp on steroids. So if the remaining heroes can somehow pull off a miracle (again, literally), Wakanda and all of its people will be restored, along with everyone (or almost) else who died.
I’ll go into more details when I do a full review “Infinity Wars.”
“Black Panther” is one of the best if not the best of the Marvel films. It has everything you could want, and even rises above the realm of superhero movies to become the saga of a legend, not a perfect man or a perfect nation (well, almost), but one with a worthy King who even surpasses his father in leading Wakanda into the future.