Marvel Strikes Black Gold with their Latest Hit
By Patrick O’Donnell
Despite constant critiques by film industry detractors of audience fatigue and superhero saturation in the box-office, the comic-book genre has demonstrated its tenacity in the face of said criticism. Following Warner Bros.’ financial and critical success with Wonder Woman last year, the push for diversity in blockbuster cinema has gained greater momentum than ever before. Black Panther, Marvel Studio’s latest offering, is a trailblazer for black representation in cinema, political dialogue in the superhero genre and yet another box-office notch on Disney’s belt. Ryan Coogler helms the ship for this onscreen adaptation of the titular Marvel hero; the sovereign to Wakanda, a scientifically and culturally advanced, albeit isolationist, African nation, who boasts super-powers and a cat costume to boot. In the aftermath of his father’s death and his recent ascension to the throne, King T’Challa is confronted with both his domestic responsibilities and the foreign foes threatening his country’s welfare.
RyMarvel Comics version of Black PantherWith a directorial resume that includes Fruitvale Station and Creed, Coogler is already considered an auteur of his time despite his young age. Coogler succeeds primarily through his world-building. Wakanda feels real. Easing the transition from indie director to the Marvel big leagues, Coogler inserts the topics of politics, race and class prevalent in his prior filmography into his big-budget debut. Echoing Marvel’s ‘What If…?’ comic-book, an alternate-reality anthology series which diverted from Marvel’s mainstream continuity, Coogler frames Wakanda in a similar fashion as a contrary narrative to the conventional African/black storylines employed in mainstream media; daring to ask the question: ‘What If… Africa was allowed to thrive?’ Wakanda, being free of colonialism’s evils and subsequent effects, is able to depict the black experience as an empowering one rather than one of subjugation. The passionate and introspective infatuation audiences have garnered for Black Panther speaks to the power of Wakanda as this symbol. With the help of cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Wakanda is a wonder to behold onscreen; whilst costume designer Ruth E. Carter dresses the natives of Wakanda to the nines, in an attire that is equally traditionally African as it is futuristic. Wakanda is an immersive audience experience. Coogler, alongside fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, walks the line between Black Panther being a full-fledged action dramedy, superhero celebration, and a political message. No character is without purpose. No plot point without direction. However, Coogler falls short in executing said action to the screen. Unnecessarily sloppy CGI and a lack of high octane action scenes, outside of two set pieces, expose Coogler’s inexperience in his role as the director of a blockbuster action movie; although these minor gripes come far and few in-between. Where Coogler lacks in style as a director, he sure as hell makes up for in substance.
Black Panther, compared to other superhero solo flicks, feels more akin to an ensemble piece due to the film’s emphasis on community and selfhood. All the predominately African-American cast, both men and women, portray characters who exhibit their own sense of agency; their differing opinions on Wakandan ideals being the primary catalyst for conflict in the film. From Danai Gurira’s Okoye, the traditionalist, femme fatale general of T’Challa’s all-female personal guard with her devotion to the monarchy and custom; to Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, the Wakandan special forces agent/love interest with her progressive egalitarianism and scepticism of Wakanda’s status quo, Black Panther is not afraid to explore differing opinions of identity and purpose. This debate is explored more explicitly in the relationship between T’Challa and the film’s protagonist, Killmonger. Arguably the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villain to date, Eric Killmonger differentiates the African-American reality from the Wakandan fantasy. Having previously worked with Coogler, Michael. B Jordan performs Killmonger as a natural progression from his previous work with the director: Killmonger is another young black man who cannot catch a break in America. Through their silence in his suffering, T’Challa and Wakanda are complicit in his, and by extension black America’s, pain and misfortune. Jordan plays Killmonger as the Joker to Black Panther’s Caped Crusader; an agent of chaos fighting against a soldier of justice. No stranger to depicting playing roles which demand audience attention, Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa as an individual of equal iconic status to his past acclaimed roles as James Brown and Jackie Robinson. T’Challa’s regal disposition acts as the perfect juxtaposition to Killmonger the anarchist. However, the true MVP of the film proves to Letitia Wright’s Shuri: The People’s Princess of Wakanda. Wright’s enthusiasm and love for the role proves to be contagious. If Marvel is smart, Shuri the teenage genius will be the latest cash-cow for the franchise.
Black Panther is a game changer. Expected to cross the $1 billion mark within its third week of release, the discriminatory industry myth that black talent does not sell has been proven unequivocally false. However, financial accomplishments aside, Black Panther is a rare cinematic moment which needs to be experienced first-hand. Rarely do blockbusters become explicitly political. Debatable whether they should. Personally, I’m thankful Black Panther is.