The Oscars pushed their diversity front and center last night, right alongside making fun of their own astounding goof of announcing the wrong winner for the biggest award at last year’s show. A major player in highlighting Hollywood’s increasing expansion into films made and led by non-white males is Black Panther.
If you have not yet seen Black Panther, I encourage you to do so, partly because I will be including spoilers in this discussion, but mainly because it is a really good movie. I was teaching in a predominantly black city school last week, and I noticed a board in the hallway urging students to enter an essay contest where they describe what being “unapologetically black” means to them. The chosen winner would be rewarded two tickets to see Black Panther. I immediately thought of two questions: 1.) Do I need to be a student at this school to enter the contest? and 2.) Do I need to identify as unapologetically black? because I am neither of those things, but damn it I want to see Black Panther again!
The film is easily the best solo-hero story that Marvel Studios has churned out since their opening Iron Man in 2008, and I rank it on my Marvel Top 5 with The Avengers, both Captain America sequels, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Black Panther was first introduced into the Marvel movie-verse, in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and while most heroes in the densely populated Marvel lore are brought into an ensemble to help propel them onto their own solo (or smaller team) movies, T’Challa, Prince of Wakanda, the Black Panther is not one of these heros. Black Panther enters Civil War as an outsider, a newcomer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but his character, motivation, and actions make his the third most important role in the story behind only Captain Amercia and Iron Man respectively. No other character has entered the MCU in a multi-hero movie and been established as such a key component to the story at hand and moving forward. Despite the star power and top billing of the feuding heroes Captain America and Iron Man, Black Panther is the one who apprehends the bad guy who set the main conflict in motion. His character arc takes him on a journey from blind revenge to working to help the same man he sought to destroy.
I love how in Civil War, and again in his own movie, Black Panther learns his lesson and grows from his mistakes, the mistakes of those around him, and from the mistakes made by his antagonists. He recognizes that the men he is fighting have come to their course of action through humanity; that they are doing what they think is right. This is more apparent in Black Panther‘s villain, Killmonger, who in many respects is justified in his demands for Wakanda to use its strengths to right the wrongs done upon blacks the world over. While the steps he takes to enact it are extreme, Killmonger’s cause is sympathetic, which offers us a unique duality between the hero and villain of this story. Such is what makes for great characters and a great conflict between them. Killmonger is without a doubt the best Marvel villain since Loki, who has some situational similarities to him, but Killmonger’s conviction makes it easier to commiserate with him.
I’m pleasantly surprised how well Black Panther has entered into the MCU. From quietly commanding the top tier of the film he’s first placed in, to continuing his growth as a character in his solo film. Even Spider-Man, in many respects Marvel’s most popular hero, was introduced into the MCU in the usual one-among-many way. Yes, I know that was in large part due to Spider-Man’s rights being in the hands of another studio, and that it was the same movie as Black Panther, but again, BP was in the main trio, where Spidey, while undeniably a scene-stealer, is brought in to be in the big fight at the airport and to establish that he’s firmly in the MCU now. His presence seems a little off-screen forced, but is fortunately seamless in Civil War.
It’s also worth noting that Spider-Man is a sure bet. Marvel knows that his character has a tremendous fan following that will turn out to see some webslinging. Can the same be said of a black superhero with a cat-themed costume? I mean, Halle Berry’s Catwoman didn’t do this vague description any favors. But nevermind all that. Nevermind that the superhero in question is a royal warrior from an advanced civilization with a rich mythology that fits well within the Marvel mythology that keeps us coming to the movies. Nevermind that his suit looks cool and all of his additional gadgets are fun. Nevermind that the actors involved are excellent and wonderfully cast. Nevermind that it’s fiction. There is no guarantee that this will work. The great fear of this film faltering comes from it being a predominantly black cast and crew in an era where people of color are still struggling to share their stories and be featured in a Hollywood that can seem whiter than a coked out polar bear in a blizzard. Fortunately, quality is recognizable no matter what the color of the people in front or behind the camera is, and no matter what gender they are, for that matter. Black Panther kills it, thanks immensely to its strong male and female characters whose culture is wonderfully showcased in vibrancy that few stories are able to show.
Additionally, Chadwick Boseman has made a career of playing black pioneers, such as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown, so he was certainly up to the task of taking on the role of Black Panther. Luckily, everyone else involved in making this film was up to the task in their respective roles too, so that Black Panther manages to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors.
Thanks for reading and watching! Maybe I’ll see you in the theater for another round of Black Panther, but you can always reach me at email@example.com with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Unearth yourself here again next week for some more fun.
Keep your wit as sharp as your claws,
P.S. As impressive as Black Panther is, don’t forget the superhero franchise that kicked off the current wave of comic book based movies and featured a black lead.