“Black Panther” is a big superhero film and a subversive celebration of blackness

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther aka T’Challa in “Black Panther”

As the first—and maybe best—black superhero the comics world has ever seen, Black Panther is not merely one archetype the way most costumed vigilantes tend to be. He is the ultimate black fairy tale, the king of the technologically advanced African nation Wakanda as well as a super spy, scientist, spiritual warrior, and a billionaire richer than Batman.

If he wasn’t a living, breathing course correction of comicdom’s lily white lineage, this plurality would be overkill. But for a movie released in an era where every big budget blockbuster is about some asshole in a cape punching people through buildings, this versatility sure does help— “Black Panther” begins like a James Bond movie and ends like “Conan The Barbarian,” with enough comedic levity and racial commentary along the way to satiate both heart and mind.

It also withstands the many sides to the draining internet discourse surrounding the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008, and the first to star a black hero. For every enthusiastic supporter suggesting you see the film en masse, multiple times in the theater to remind Hollywood of the black audience’s collective buying power, there’s an equally vociferous detractor slamming you for even thinking of lining Disney’s coffers in the name of racial solidarity. Somewhere, in a corner, there’s racists mad at the entire endeavor, scratching at their arms and crying that there’s no White Panther for them to champion.

Amid all of this clamor, what’s been treated as the most expensive, pop cultural political football ever made is really just a very good superhero film. Perhaps, one of the finest ever made.

“Creed” director Ryan Coogler delivers something radical and artfully synthesizes the MCU’s most successful, tried and true features: the technological dynamism of “Iron Man,” the Shakespearean tragedy of the “Thor” films, and the ‘70s spy-fi intrigue of the “Captain America” series. And thanks to “Captain America: Civil War,” which did most of the heavy lifting in establishing Black Panther and his alter ego T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), “Black Panther” instead spends its time exploring the world of Wakanda, the mythical nation T’Challa calls home, and its many inhabitants. It’s clear that a great deal of effort went into realizing Wakanda on screen, even if the end result resembles  an afrofuturist fever dream rendition of Zamunda from “Coming to America” as sketched by Jack Kirby. The film treats the very idea of Wakanda, an isolationist magical city built on a reservoir of otherworldly metal called Vibranium masquerading as one of Trump’s “shithole” countries, as a high-minded symposium on the nature of diaspora, an action packed echo chamber of conflicting geopolitical perspectives.

Michael B. Jordan (middle) as Erik Killmonger and Daniel Kaluuya (left) as W’Kabi in “Black Panther”

T’Challa remains a Prince Akeem-esque straight man soaking up the opinions of those around him, as each debate and foil brings him closer to finding out who he must be. This isn’t a story about how a man becomes a leader, but the journey of discovering the kind of leader he chooses to be. No stone sharpens his sword as much as the film’s breakout star, Michael B. Jordan. In his capable hands, Erik Killmonger is easily one of the best villains the MCU has seen thus far, largely because he’s no cookie cutter antagonist. T’Challa and Killmonger are two sides of the same coin, mirroring the Martin & Malcolm ideological divide of two other Marvel nemeses, “X-Men’s” Professor X and his best friend turned lifelong rival Magneto. A villain is always more compelling when the bone he’s picking is a legitimate one, and the beef between these two is artfully wrapped up in the central argument of the film. Jordan plays Killmonger with a singular kind of charisma, a world burning intensity and effortless wit.

Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole flesh out supporting cast members and give each arcs that mirror and compliment T’Challa’s own. Moreso than any other Marvel movie, or really any other superhero movie ever, this is a film where every cast member is given space to shine and a legitimate reason to exist. From T’Challa’s scene-stealing sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to the General of the Dora Milaje, his personal guard forces, Okoye (Danai Gurira) to the two token whites—the coked out Russell Crowe impression of Andy Serkis’ villain Klaw and the stiff, comic relief of Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross—each character stands alone and plays a part in the film’s larger conversation with conflicting notions of what the nation of Wakanda should be and how they should conduct themselves on the world’s stage.

The same action beats audiences have come to expect from the Marvel milieu are on display, though executed with Coogler’s personal touch and a brio other directors in this playground haven’t been given the opportunity to express. The third act features some positively cringey CGI, and the opening set piece is murkily staged, but those are minor quibbles. Other than Rian Johnson injecting some much needed idiosyncrasy into the world of “Star Wars,” no other filmmaker has dug so deep into the belly of the beast without losing the style that got him to the dance in the first place. That Coogler came out the other end of the Marvel machine with a finished product so distinctly him is a miracle, and one worth celebrating.

A film this Black with such a powerful marketing push behind it is noteworthy, especially in 2018, when people are so thirsty for representation and so ready for this movie to be the end-all-be all-of blackness on screen that they’d likely twist themselves into pretzels defending it as such even if it wound up being lowkey trash. But the real joy is that “Black Panther” is a prismatic portrait of blackness that’s both intoxicating and inspiring. We don’t have to pretend that a superhero movie is going to somehow cure all of society’s problems, but we also don’t need to deny its symbolic power.

“Black Panther” is now playing in theaters.

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