Take Two: Black Panther Raises the Bar at Marvel

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Marvel’s newest movie, Black Panther, is many things at once. It’s the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a series of interconnected movies (and related TV series plus other media) that began with Iron Man in 2008 and has generated over thirteen billion dollars at the global box office (making it the most successful film franchise in history). But Black Panther is more than just a continuation of existing stories. It’s unlike any other superhero movie before it. In short, it is the blackest superhero movie ever made, and it depicts blackness in ways that no Hollywood movie before it has ever done.

For those who do not know the character, the Black Panther is the superhero alter-ego of King T’Challa of Wakanda, a fictional country in Africa. As much as T’Challa himself, Wakanda is the star of the movie, a fully-realized vision of an Africa that never was: never colonized by Europeans, never stripped of its resources, never subjugated. Not only is Wakanda independent and free, it is wealthy and extremely advanced thanks to deposits of a metal known as Vibranium. Technology in Wakanda isn’t just twenty-first century, it’s hundreds of years beyond that. To protect its people and its resources from outside encroachment, Wakanda cloaks itself behind elaborate holograms. The world at large sees another “Third-World” country with jungles, farmers and “cool textiles.” In reality, Wakanda is like a Star Trek planet founded by Africans.

The plot of the movie focuses on Wakanda’s status as a hidden jewel of wealth and technology, and whether Wakanda can or even should remain shrouded from the outside world. That question isn’t treated glibly, nor is it divorced from the history of the fallen world in which we actually live (as opposed to the Afro-futurist ideal of Wakanda). It plays out as a power struggle between different tribes and between different branches of the royal family. It includes plenty of action, but that action is driven by ideas and ideals to an extent that none of the other MCU films have been.

Co-written and directed by a black man, and starring a cast that is almost entirely black (and which spans the globe by including Americans, Brits, and Africans), Black Panther shows us sights we’ve never seen in a Hollywood movie, from the fierce female warriors sworn to protect Wakanda to the armored rhinos that charge into battle to the hidden city full of levitating trains, spaceships, holograms, nano-suits, magical herbs and, yes, really cool textiles. Out of all of the Marvel movies, this is the first one that will NOT give you the feeling that “we’ve been here before.” We haven’t. This is something new, fresh and exciting. It is optimistic, joyful, and beautifully, wonderfully black.

If Black Panther succeeds at the global box-office, which the early signs point to it doing, it has the potential to radically change the playing field in the movie industry. No other film of this scale has ever had this many people of color involved in its creation. No other tent pole movie has ever had a story in which white people were, at most, incidental. No, they aren’t excluded from the film, nor is it even slightly “anti-white” (though it is most assuredly anti-colonialist). They just aren’t the focus of the plot. This movie may finally stand as the irrefutable proof that they don’t always NEED to be the docs point; that fantasy, escapism, excitement and heroism can and should come in many guises, and show many hues. The previous MCU films have almost all been good, or at the very least thoroughly competent (hello, Ant Man). Black Panther is the first MCU film that truly MATTERS.

Written by: Wayne Allen Jones