Marvel’s new Black Panther film, as a product and a cultural object, has its work cut out.
A casual Internet searcher, confronted with the profusion of thinkpieces and critical responses generated both during the past few months and post-release, will rightly conclude that there is more at stake for this film than is the norm for standard super-hero fare. Black Panther feels important, and it arrives buffeted by tremendous weathers of anticipation.
Ryan Coogler’s film occupies a difficult space which straddles numerous margins; to succeed on the multitude of fronts it faces it must function simultaneously as a comic-book adaptation that can satisfy the expectations of longtime readers, as a persuasive expression of black experience and of marginal voices, as a convincing portrayal of exemplar figures for the unrepresented youth of those communities, as a positor of thorny moral questions, and as a blockbuster that can rake in millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars for the studios involved in its production.
The eponymous Black Panther is the callow King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), thrust reluctantly into the role of monarch following the death of his father in a previous Marvel movie. His new role is as the autocrat of the highly secretive, isolationist African state Wakanda, a utopian country possessing supremely advanced technologies thanks to the successful harnessing of a natural abundance of the near-magical metal Vibranium, a resource of extraterrestrial origin capable of absorbing energy. To protect this precious, highly-desirable asset, successive generations of Wakandan governments (making extensive uses of their superior technology) propagate to the world at large the myth that the country is impoverished and backward, having escaped subjugation by the European colonial project only by the virtue of the high mountains and impenetrable jungles which encircle it.
Wakanda is a compellingly executed realm, a credible, thoroughly realised speculative fiction-space that is, for now, the glossiest and highest-budget manifestation of Afrofuturist aesthetics available in film, complete with dense, gleaming conurbations which leer suddenly from holographic forests, towering cordilleras and jungle basins, and ironically Westernesque plains populated by horsemen, agronomists and rhinoceros ranchers. This Delphic dreamworld is undoubtedly one of the film’s principal achievements, populated in its ritually-governed legislative precincts by four convincingly designed tribes (helpfully colour-coded for later battle sequences), each with their own unique styles of dress, weaponry and manners of speech and movement. This depiction of a culture composed of numerous diverse elements yet retaining an essential homogeneity is elegantly plausible and is at its most visually triumphant in the first scene of ritual combat which takes place at the precipice of a waterfall, with the varicoloured elders, warriors and statesmen arrayed across the cliff-face lending the sequence a psychedelic quality.
An unusual measure of ambivalence is present in the super-hero admixture in the form of Erik (Michael B. Jordan), the film’s primary antagonist, his brash, swaggering charisma the foil to T’Challa’s steely seriousness. Although a wanton murderer, Erik’s palpable fury and ambitions for Wakanda will inevitably engage audiences more than the philosophy of its protagonist, which for the majority of the film occupies a realm of cautious conservatism. The aloof, royal T’challa, as the film’s star Boseman recently elucidated, may be significantly less sympathetic than Erik— although a just king who does his best to follow the established precepts of his father and other forerunners, Boseman argues that T’Challa’s experience of essential privilege, as the inheritor of dynastic status and as the wielder of hereditary power, is far removed from the struggle that black people contend with globally. Erik, Boseman continues, has been through that struggle. His response to suffering the depredations inherent in the black experience is to turn to a revolutionary pan-Africanism, with Wakanda— with all its technological and military might— as its proposed lodestar. His dual aims are the violent emancipation of the African diaspora from oppression globally and revenge on the progenitors, proliferators, perpetuators and beneficiaries of that oppression.
It is the strength of the character of Erik, ironically, that causes the film to stumble. T’Challa’s eventual resolution, following a climactic fistfight, to expose the secrets of Wakanda to the world, open it for trade, and to establish outreach centres internationally for youths of African descent (starting in Erik’s home city of Oakland, California), is practical, passably noble and good-guyish, but cannot help but appear somewhat limp in its moderateness next to Erik’s vociferous, passionately embodied vision of redemption and retribution. Erik’s totalising moral fury, and the
demonstrated support for his objectives among some sections of Wakandan society, create a quandary that Black Panther can’t quite resolve. The film features no real exploration of the Wakandan psyche, which makes forming an understanding the successful coup Erik stages problematic— what number of Wakandan citizens feel a sense of collective anguish for the black historical experience? Conversely, do some Wakandans view the peoples outside of its natural walls as backward and unworthy of attention? The film’s swooping, animated introduction shows us Wakanda standing by during the greatest violations of human dignity— transatlantic slavery, world wars, rapacious colonial adventurism. Did a figure like Erik, or a faction espousing similar perspectives, emerge during those periods?
It is the frustrating lack of provision of answers, or of suggestions of answers, for questions like these which cause the essential conservatism of the film’s ending— a fundamental ratification and restatement of status quo values and a repudiation of black militarism or defiance— to chafe more than it might. That a film by Disney (a company which has profited historically off of troubling depictions of people of colour) has a limited capacity for moral ambiguity and concludes with barely-coded reiterations of orthodoxy will be unsurprising to most, but the very presence of ideas of racial solidarity, of black agency and separatism and of the possibility of liberation through violence make the flaccidity of the narrative’s conclusion all the more visible. When Boseman argued that “T’Challa is the enemy”, he hinted at the character’s complacency, remarking that his villainy was of a type he’d “always known. It’s power. It’s having privilege.” Perhaps it is suitable, then, that it is only the film’s ostensible antagonist that ever really rails, in dialogues that some black commentators and audiences have praised as necessary and cathartic, against the protean omnipresence of white supremacy.
It may be overreaching to call T’Challa acquiescent, or to argue that the film depicts acquiescence as a heroic quality— the character is, of course, still making a principled endeavour to alleviate some of the difficulties of black existence— but for the hero to make such an endeavour in a manner so entirely palatable to a family audience implicitly suggests which methods of empowerment are legitimate, and might indicate that the emancipatory potentials of the film that some have identified may not be as extensive as hoped.