All movies owe a debt to their predecessors. It is impossible to watch a film without noting the various influences that have inspired it. This is even truer for genre films which often share entire story structures, churning out movies that are indistinguishable from each other. Superhero flicks, especially, have been accused of blurring together into a colorful, entertaining, and infinitely duplicable pictures. Each superhero, no matter if he (and it’s almost always a ‘he’) can fly, lift cars with a single hand, or just run really, really fast, seems like the same combination of bravery and self-sacrifice. Iron Man may quip a little bit more often than his stoic counterpart, Captain America, but their stories are told in a similar fashion with the familiar notes of a origin story, a challenging villain, and ultimately, total victory. It is these notes that Black Panther manages to sidestep almost entirely in favor of depicting something new and inventive. In doing so, the film separates itself from other Marvel efforts in both its plot and imagery.
Although the audience is being introduced to Wakanda for the first time, for T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), this is a country and a culture that he has been immersed in his whole life. After his father’s death, he immediately begins assuming the proper rituals and customs that come with the ascendancy to both the throne and the title of the Black Panther. He has been raised to be a king and it shows in his carefully reserved grief, in his every deliberate movement. It is this quiet confidence and familiarity that infuses the movie with a sense of purpose. This is not a superhero in the making, someone slowly coming to terms with his powers. This is a man who was born into the responsibility. However, even though he may have always expected the throne, he perhaps never considered coming into power this early. And there are some challenges that Wakandan tradition cannot prepare him for, especially the centuries long isolation that has kept Wakanda’s technological advances secure. All these challenges are represented in the character of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Killmonger is not the typically bland Marvel villain craving world domination or the vague concept of power. Instead, he is a deeply wounded human being who has seen the oppression regularly endured by Wakanda’s African brothers and sisters. The reality of this oppression is never far from the movie on the screen which regularly references slavery, colonialism, and the continuing racism that has ravaged the continent of Africa. The proposition of a country unaffected by all of this is an opportunity to explore what could have been and what is still at stake. Although movies, especially those in the superhero genre, are seen as an escape from the headlines displaying the latest tragedy, Black Panther actively chooses to engage in these issues through the frame of a fictional country. This is how the movie transcends the usual clichés and tropes. It is how it moves from interesting to compelling and impossible to ignore. The movie always treats it’s subjects and their decisions as crucial and impactful. None of their actions come without consequences. Even the world of Wakanda demonstrates this with everything from planes that flare their wings like hawks to soaring skyscrapers that arch and twist. Everything speaks to a defined history. Contrasting this careful treatment with other examples in the genre where death is defied at every turn and injuries are brushed off without explanation is like the difference between watching a Saturday morning cartoon and a documentary. Both are entertaining and may present value, but in radically different ways.
Of course, it helps that this vision is carried out with grace by Ryan Coogler and his cast. T’Challa fights alongside a team of strong characters, especially strong women. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s younger sister, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the king’s bodyguard, are particular standouts. Like Okoye, the movie is strong and emotionally complex. Like Shuri, it is unafraid to spit in the face of tradition and have a little fun. And like T’Challa, it is willing to examine the past and bring about a new future, not only for superhero films, but for all movies.