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Non-Review Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is something special.

In a lot of ways, it is a very typical Marvel blockbuster. The familiar formula is in place, and the movie follows the rhythms that audiences have come to expect from these films. There is a certain tempo and structure to the film, the sort of clean efficiency that delineates most of the movies produced under the banner of Marvel Studios. For a film advertised using a remix of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, it is striking how conservative Black Panther is.

The Panther Strikes!

However, there is a lot to be said for the film’s more understated revolutionary qualities, the depth of understanding that the production team bring to the adaptation. Black Panther is acutely aware of what it means to construct a superhero fantasy epic about an African prince who leads a utopian society in the context of 2017, and there is something reassuring in how confidently and efficiently the film works within that framework. It is not merely that the existence of Black Panther is important, it is that Black Panther‘s assertion of its identity is important.

Black Panther is superior blockbuster by any measure, constructed with a great deal of care and thought about what it means. Much like its title character, there is a sense that the weight of expectation is upon Black Panther, and the most remarkable thing about the film is how seriously it takes that obligation without ever feeling burdened.

Heavy lies the head that wears the cowl.

Of course, as any comic book or superhero fan will observe, it is easy to overstate the importance of Black Panther. This is not the first superhero movie with a black protagonist. There were a whole host of such movies in the nineties; Steel, Catwoman. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that Marvel Studios owes its existence to Blade, a superhero blockbuster that predates Spider-Man and X-Men, despite the fact that it has largely been consigned the status of a historical footnote. It is important not to erase those accomplishments.

Similarly, the title character is not Marvel Studios’ first black hero; Jim Rhodes suited up in Iron Man II and Sam Wilson flew into action in Captain America: The Winter. Even discounting these characters, Black Panther is not the first Marvel Studios production to be headlined by a black character. Although co-produced by Netflix, Luke Cage beat Black Panther to the punch by a number of years. Indeed, the character even made appearances as a supporting character in Jessica Jones and as part of the eponymous superhero team in The Defenders.

Well trained.

The comic book character himself had a somewhat inauspicious introduction, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a supporting character for their iconic Fantastic Four run. His creation predates the emergence of the Black Panther movement in the late sixties, but not the use of the logo by the Lowndes County Freedom Organisation nor the existence of the African American tank unit in the Second World War. (Indeed, the character would try – and fail – to rebrand himself as “the Black Leopard” in later appearances.)

The original character was arguably a crude archetype. He was the mysterious ruler of a vaguely defined nation somewhere on the continent of Africa, with a jungle motif and just a small hint of mysticism underpinning the science-fiction trappings of sixties comic books. As originally presented, T’Challa might easily have been developed as a counterpart to Doctor Doom, the iconic arch foe of Reed Richards, just swapping out an ambiguous Eastern European locale for a hazily defined African aesthetic.

All fired up.

However, there is no denying the evocative power of the concept of Black Panther. Although Lee and Kirby were two Jewish comic creators from New York who had created the character in the midst of a much larger and more evolved run on what was the company’s flagship title, African American comic book creators intrinsically understood the conceptual weight of the character of T’Challa and the idea of Wakanda. The Black Panther was a unique black hero, one that existed apart from contemporary black heroes like Black Lightening or Luke Cage.

Over the years, African American writers like Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, not to mention artists like Billy Graham and Brian Stelfreeze, seized upon the opportunity presented by the Black Panther and the fictional nation of Wakanda.  Comic books have always existed as a domain dominated by fantasy and imagination, powered as much by symbolism and idealism as by reality or logic. Captain America speaks to the country’s self-image; Iron Man embodies American capitalism and industrialism; Peter Parker is the modest kid who can do anything.

Masking his pride.

In the concept of Black Panther, African American creators found a bold idea. They could construct a fictional and idealised African nation that had never been scarred by colonialism or slavery. The Black Panther and Wakanda represented an idealised version of the African continent, a fantastical spiritual homeland that evoked a fantastical and utopian reimagining of history. Wakanda was to Africa what Middle Earth was Europe or Albion was to Great Britain. More obviously, emerging from sixties American popular consciousness, Wakanda was to Africa as the Federation was to United States.

Ryan Coogler understands this weight and power. Black Panther opens with a conversation between father and son, suggesting that what follows is simply a tale of fantasy and imagination. Over a black canvass, the child pleads, “Tell me a story.” When the father inquires as to what story he might tell, his son promptly suggests, “Tell me a story about home.” The opening sequence of Black Panther presents an oral history of its fictional nation, one told in the sand and dirt that suggests the power and weight of history felt in land.

You come at the king…

Indeed, a lot of Black Panther is built around the idea of Wakanda and its relationship to the rest of the world. The plot makes a point of stressing the country’s isolation and protectionism, emphasising that Wakanda is not a diplomatic power equivalent to a real country. Instead, there is strength in Wakanda as an ideal, in the quick glimpses of its powerful technology and subtle influence; proud smiles from witnesses told that what they have seen did not really happen, as if inviting accounts of these events to slip from documented history into the realm of myth or legend.

It is telling that Black Panther segues from this fantastical history lesson about mysterious metals and supernatural panther gods towards something more mundane – the stark title card marking a transition to “Oakland, California, 1992.” The film creates an effective contrast between the myth of Wakanda repeated by an African American diaspora and the realities of living in the United States. Gone are elegant sculptures of larger-than-life heroes carved in sand, giving way to news footage of the Los Angeles Riots.

Gorilla Tribe in our midst.

This is an unspoken recurring tension in Black Panther: the world as we wish it were, and the world as it is. Superhero stories have always sought to bridge the two, and Black Panther understands this on a fundamental level. Writer and director Ryan Coogler grew up in Oakland, so this transition is no accident. The teaser closes on the image of a handful of black kids playing in a dingy playground, looking up to the sky with wonder as the Black Panther takes flight. The image becomes important later in terms of plot, but it is immediately effective in establishing tone.

This is perhaps a reflection on the self-awareness and reflexiveness in contemporary culture, as increasingly canny audiences come to embrace stories that are themselves largely about stories. Part of this is the weight of dealing with existing properties rather than bold new ideas; any long-running piece of popular culture inevitably becomes about itself. However, maybe it also suggests a more canny contemporary audience, one willing to understand the power of storytelling even beyond the content of the story; the effectiveness of imagery and inspiration, of the weight of a simple concept.

Kingmaker.

Whatever the reason for this reflexiveness, there is a fitting symmetry between the closing scene of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and the teaser to Black Panther; both are fundamentally stories about looking to the sky with wonder, realising that stories that historically were very rarely about anybody but straight white men are suddenly being opened up to anyone, and that these stories have a power that extends beyond the narratives themselves. Black Panther understands this power and builds upon it.

Indeed, the central thread running through the film is the idea of what Wakanda means – what it represents and what it embodies, in a manner more abstract than literal. This is not quite the gold-tinted palace hijinks of the Thor franchise, nor the clumsy gestures towards overt political commentary of the Captain America films. Instead, Black Panther is largely about how important it is to imagine a place like Wakanda, of an African nation that had avoided colonialism and exploitation, allowed to develop to its full potential on its own terms.

Far afield.

As such, there is something endearing in the way that writer and director Ryan Coogler largely adheres to the familiar Marvel Studios playbook in terms of crafting his narrative. Black Panther is not aspiring to construct a narrative as sprawling and intricate as Christopher Nolan’s work on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, Black Panther arguably isn’t even as slyly subversive as Taika Waititi’s work on Thor: Ragnarok. This is not so much a deconstruction of the conventions of superhero tropes as a joyous celebration of getting play them through.

While much has been made of the debt that Black Panther owes to the recent run by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze, or the defining run by Christopher Priest, these influences are largely abstract and conceptual rather than narrative. Black Panther includes elements created by Christopher Priest like Everett K. Ross or the Dora Milaje, while avoiding a lot of the moral ambiguity of the run. Indeed, the biggest influences of contemporary comic book runs on Black Panther seem to be visual in nature.

Shuri thing.

Brian Stelfreeze’s sleak lines and Laura Martin’s rich colours are reflected in the style and tone of the film, its use of bright lighting and strong patterns to create an aesthetic unique among contemporary blockbusters. The production design on Black Panther is stunning, with Hannah Beachler embracing the film’s largely African setting and the character’s African trappings to build a rich and immersive world. Of particular note is Ruth E. Carter’s costume designs, which create a vibrant aesthetic, ensuring that Black Panther has a distinct visual identity.

Marvel Studios has largely defined itself by a bright and colourful approach to filmmaking, a hypersaturated approach that stands out in contrast to the more dour tones of the DC films produced by Warner Brothers. This approach works well on films based around the characters to whom this style is suited, such as the Thor films. Black Panther capitalises on this brightness to create a much brighter version of Africa than that traditionally seen on film, to the point that even the night skies seem to glow purple rather than black.

Purple haze.

(This leads to one of the movie’s more minor problems, which is that the computer-generated special effects don’t appear particularly impressive. Visual effects work tends to look better at lower lighting levels, where textures can be obscured and in a certain fuzziness can be excused. So much of Black Panther unfolds during the day – and even its late night action sequences are so saturated – that the special effects sequences can seem rather cheap for a movie with a production budget of over one hundred million dollars.)

Coogler is clearly relishing the opportunity to work with a character like this within a genre like this, and that playfulness permeates the film – from the gleeful interactions between T’Challa and Shuri to the way in which the camera lingers on the sets as if to take its time exploring this world that has been built. Black Panther takes a great deal of pleasure in its own existence, largely rejecting unnecessary angst in favour of embracing the tropes and conventions of big budget action movie storytelling.

“I only gamble with my life.”

Indeed, Coogler seems to be pitching Black Panther as something close to an African James Bond, borrowing several cues from the series. This is most obvious in the way that Coogler chooses to present his ensemble: Shuri is cast in the role of a hyperactive version of Q, Everett is the second tier American character like Felix Leiter, and Klaw is very much pitched as Bond movie henchman right down a distinctive weapon tied to a physical deformity. This frame of reference is cemented with an early action sequence set in Seoul, which starts (naturally enough) at a casino.

(Then again, James Bond has perhaps always been a good fit for Black Panther. Don McGregor’s Rage of the Panther is a surprisingly large influence on the film, given how Rage of the Panther has been somewhat overshadowed by more recent runs, to the point that Coogler seems to use several panels from the run as inspiration for particular shots. However, McGregor also emphasised the idea of T’Challa as an African version of James Bond, repeatedly and pointedly homaging Ian Fleming’s somewhat insensitive and ill-advised Live and Let Die.)

Rage of the Panther.

At the same time, Coogler consciously avoids a lot of the heavier and weightier themes that define the more recent interpretations of T’Challa. Unlike Jonathan Hickman or Ta-Nehisi Coates, Coogler is not interested in using Black Panther as a vehicle to deconstruct the notion of the superhero as god-king. Unlike Christopher Priest, the movie makes a conscious effort to side-step rather than explore the awkwardness of building a heroic story about a hereditary monarch. This makes a great deal of sense; Black Panther comes to praise its concept, not to bury it.

So Black Panther adopts the distinctive concept of the Dora Milaje from Christopher Priest, without touching on some of its more problematic elements as Ta-Nehisi Coates would do. When T’Challa inevitably finds himself confronted revolutionary forces within Wakandan borders, he faces off against an attempted coup by a would-be dictator rather than a democratic revolution. There is very little in Black Panther that problematicises its concept, which makes sense. The comic book character existed for decades before facing such deconstruction; this is his first proper adventure on film.

Dora the explorers.

Black Panther occasionally nods towards the inherent complications of the Black Panther as a concept – of the burden of leadership, of the horrible choices made in order to ensure political stability, of the compromises between a man and a head of state. At one point, T’Challa consults with his deceased father. The wise T’Chaka acknowledge, “You are a good man. With a good heart. But it is hard for a good man to be a king.” It is a familiar idea, but Black Panther takes care to insulate its protagonist from the implications.

The plot of Black Panther is driven by horrific compromises, of decisions driven by political necessity more than moral virtue. Characters repeatedly point out the contradictions within Wakandan society, of how this culture has protected itself and its citizens, but also how it has failed in its responsibilities to those who exist beyond its borders. There is certainly a timeliness to this theme, with Black Panther‘s firm condemnation of Wakanda’s privileged isolationism suggesting that Wakanda is as much a utopian projection of the United States as any African nation.

“I’ll be M’Baku.”

However, T’Challa inherits these complications when he becomes king. He does not create them. Black Panther is structured so that the story might have its cake and eat it in this regard, allowing the film to suggest some uncomfortable aspects of this particular fantasy while still allowing its hero to remain (figuratively at least) unimpeachable. It is a deft balancing act, and Coogler manages to stay on just the right side of it. Black Panther affords itself some small piece of nuance while still feeling like a very conventional superhero narrative.

This contradiction is perhaps baked into the premise of Black Panther, suggested by its name and by its premise. This is the story of a black superhero that is revolutionary in its portrayal of a fictional utopian African ideal, but which then anchors that paradise in the notion of hereditary monarchy. The character shares his name with a revolutionary political movement and the film’s first trailer was cut to Gil Scott-Heron’s revolutionary poetry, but Black Panther feels surprisingly conservative in places. Ryan Coogler threads a very fine needle.

Some people need to T’Challa Out.

There are moments when Black Panther feels just a little bit too reserved and too restrained. There are aspects of the film that seem consciously constructed in such a way as to avoid potentially alienating the kind of observers and commentators who bristle at progressive politics and events like the “women only” screenings of Wonder Woman. Black Panther feels like it has been very carefully calibrated so as to avoid making white American audiences feel uncomfortable.

This calibration is reflected in the strong supporting role allocated to the character of CIA agent Everett K. Ross. A character who was central to Christopher Priest’s iconic run, Ross seems to exist in the context of Black Panther so that there can be at least one heroic white character, so that the most prominent white character is not the South African supervillain Ulysses Klaue. In fact, Ross seems to exist quite separate from most of the action, and could be easily trimmed from the film; he even spends the climax in a separate geographical location to most of the ensemble.

The Klaw of the land.

However, Black Panther‘s appeal towards moderation is best reflected in the character of Erik Stevens, the villain who comes to be known as “Killmonger.” Interestingly enough, Black Panther draws most overtly from Don McGregor in its characterisation of Erik, largely eschewing the hyper-capitalist interpretation emphasised by Christopher Priest. (Priest famously explicitly likened Erik to Donald Trump, decades before Trump would ascend to the Oval Office.) Black Panther presents Erik as a clear contrast to the title character, suggesting a firm delineation.

Erik Stevens is a radical in every sense of the world. Erik is an angry young man who wants to vent his frustration at the systems of oppression that he has experienced first-hand. Erik is a revolutionary, who wants nothing more than to use force in order to protect those oppressed around the world. “This world is going to start over!” Erik promises at one point, his evil plan designed to destabilise regimes across the world and empower those people who live in fear.

Some men just want to watch the world burn.

Black Panther suggests Erik’s radical and revolutionary appeal to violence as a clear contrast to the more stance of T’Challa. T’Challa does not want to burn the world down. T’Challa is wrestling against Wakanda’s history of isolationism and neutrality, but longs for a much slower and safer mechanism to ensure the safety of those oppressed around the world. Erik embodies the political right’s worst fears about progressive movements like Black Lives Matter, imaging social justice campaigners wanted to demolish the entire system.

To be fair, this makes sense in the context of a superhero movies. The superhero genre is inherently conservative. Heroes fight to preserve the status quo, very rarely to improve it. There are any number of reasons for that. Some of those reasons are political, but some are purely practical. Heroes need to exist in a world that resembles our own, so it makes sense for Wakanda to hide and it makes sense for T’Challa not to participate in the violent overthrow of long-standing systems of oppression.

Suits you, sir.

It should be noted that this is also very much in keeping with the general tone and aesthetic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Captain America: The Winter Soldier could touch on the excesses of the surveillance state in the era of the War on Terror, it could only do so through the prism of using actual literal Nazis instead of exploring how such a system could take root inside existing political structures. The second half of Iron Fist even reinvented the ninja death cult known as the Hand on a spectacularly ill-judged right-wing conspiracy fantasy of Black Lives Matter.

All of this made the postcolonial politics of Ragnarok particularly effective. Taika Waititi was able to use the fantastical trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to explore the legacies of colonial violence and the bones upon which empires are literally built. Ragnarok was a goofy science-fiction buddy comedy, but it was also a tale about living the shadow of empire. Ragnarok actually ended with the brutal dismantling of that empire, reducing it to a cynical punchline.

All fired up.

There is a sense that perhaps Ragnarok could get away with this because it was explicitly fantasy and was far removed from contemporary politics. Indeed, the postcolonial politics of Ragnarok might easily have gone over the heads of most audience members. Black Panther does not have the luxury, because its postcolonial landscape is not fictional or abstract. Black Panther does not include aliens or elves, but instead deals directly with the legacy of subject matter that might (and, to be honest, should) make most white audience members uncomfortable.

Still, there is a sense that Black Panther is pandering in some respects, unwilling to trust white members of the blockbuster audience members to engage directly with concepts like systemic racism, the legacy of slavery, and the continue oppression of ethnic minorities within the United States. There is a sense that Black Panther is not as radical as it might otherwise be, not as bold as this particularly story should be.

Hang in there, kitty.

At the same time, Black Panther is refreshingly candid in its background details. There is no attempt to obscure the social context of the film, nor the racial politics that underpin it. Even if they are never quite followed to their extremes, or allowed to take centre stage, they lurk in the background of almost every shot. Shuri refers to Ross as “coloniser.” Ross explains that Erik is employing tactics that he learned while serving in the United States armed forces. Erik is pointedly weaponising colonial techniques, plotting to “beat them at their own game.”

Indeed, the spectre of slavery haunts Black Panther – the original sin committed by the United States against the African continent. The sand sculptures at the start of the film make a point to include slaves being loaded on to galleys. Erik is repeatedly framed in terms of the slave experience, as a young man cut off from his homeland; his body is marked and scarred by a lifetime of violence, while he laments the “chains” in which is brought home.

Everything burns.

At one point in the film, Erik has cause to contemplate what should be done with his body in the event of his death. “Just throw my body in the ocean,” Erik instructs. “Like all my ancestors jumping from the ships, because they knew that death was better than bondage.” It is to the credit of Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios that Black Panther never shies away from the horror that was inflicted upon the African people by the other global powers.

In its own way, Black Panther justifies its own idealism and its own rejection of revolutionary politics through the character of Erik. Black Panther repeatedly argues for the importance of young African Americans growing up with inspiration icons, with utopian ideals, with an infinite array of possibilities aligned in their futures. Black Panther seems to argue that its relatively straightforward superhero trappings are an attempt to create that sort of inspirational and idealised image for African American children.

Jumping into the fray.

Black Panther repeatedly suggests that Erik is a man who grew up without Wakanda, without Black Panther, without hope for a better future. Erik grew up in the real world, saturated with reports of police violence and mass incarceration. Erik is introduced in the British Museum, where a former colonial power celebrates its exploitation of the African continent by putting artifacts on display like trophies.

It is no wonder that Erik has grown up angry, confronted by how the world treats his identity and his heritage. One observer comments that living outside Wakanda, exposed to the horrors inflicted upon African American populations by those in authority, anybody would be “radicalised by the hardship that [they] witnessed.” There is something very affecting in this, with Black Panther repeatedly (and pointedly) suggesting that Wakanda failed in its duty of care to Erik by allowing him to grow up without hope or inspiration.

T’Challa knows Bast.

Black Panther repeatedly hints at the idea that it might serve as hope or inspiration to future generations, that black children may be able to see themselves on screen as heroes living in a functioning paradise. This is why the movie is such a big deal, and why there are charity drives to ensure that young black children have a chance to see the film in cinemas. Black Panther is aggressively aware of the cultural weight that has been placed on its shoulders, and seems to write that into its own plot.

There are some minor problems along the way. Black Panther simply has too much plot to cram into its runtime. The movie arguably crams more plot into two-hours-and-twenty minutes than entire seasons of the Marvel Netflix shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones. This is particularly notable, because the film reaches the half-way point before Erik and T’Challa come into direct contact with one another. In particular, the events that drive the second half of the film feel slightly compressed and abridged.

Angela of the Mourning.

Similarly, the ensemble is just too vast. Black Panther features an incredible selection of performers: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupito Nyong’o, Dani Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker. In particular, Bassett feels criminally underused, while there is not enough time to develop relationships and dynamics between various supporting players. Coogler very effectively establishes the role that each character plays in the drama, but never conveys a true sense of who many of these characters truly are.

Then again, it is something to complain about a blockbuster feeling too rich and too compressed – to wish that the two-hours-and-twenty minutes spent in the cinema might somehow be extended so that every member of a very deep bench could have their moment in the sun, or that the second half of the film could almost be extended into its own full-length feature. The biggest problems with Black Panther is that it leaves the audience wanting more. That is not the worst problem in the world.

Throne down.

Black Panther is a joy, from beginning to end.

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6 Responses

  1. Original sin of the United States? What about all the Brits, Spaniards, and Frenchmen who brought all those slaves to America? Fucking liberal pussies.. you’re in need of a good beating!

    • Somebody else makes a good point that the genocide of the Native Americans might also be the original sin. So choose your poison.

      But yeah. Slavery defines the United States. It provides an important (and often unspoken) context for just about everything in the nation’s history, and which left scars that can still be felt on the national psyche. It is the horror that the country seems either unwilling or unable to confront and acknowledge, and a mark that will fester on the country’s soul until it allows itself to come to terms with it.

      So, yeah. Original sin.

  2. Hey Darren. Any thoughts as to why you published the above comment?

    • Because it’s better to acknowledge that such people and views exist rather than to pretend that they don’t.

      I won’t publish abusive posts directed at other commenters, but I’m happy to publish abusive posts directed at me if only so that there’s a record and a trail.

  3. Really a great movie which leaves the audience wanting more.

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