Marvel’s latest film is headlined by a wonderful African and African-American cast, and openly refers to Europe and America’s legacies of colonial oppression. Given the lack of diversity in mainstream films, “Black Panther” isn’t to be taken for granted.
One of the breakout characters, Shuri (Letitia Wright) -- a teenage gizmo specialist who serves as this film’s version of Q from the James Bond series -- calls a white CIA agent a “colonizer” with a casualness that’s unexpectedly funny. And the audience I saw “Black Panther” with, predominantly white in a portion of the country that voted for Donald Trump, actually laughed. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Shuri builds weapons for her brother, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka the bulletproof jump-suited superhero Black Panther. As viewers of “Captain America: Civil War” may remember, T’Challa inherited the throne of his fictional African country, Wakanda. T’Challa is uncertain of how to lead Wakanda, which is thought by most of the world to be poor, though it possesses a secret metal called vibranium that gives the country wealth and magical powers. This resonant idea tweaks our own country’s Eurocentric self-absorption, though a funnier and looser film might’ve found a double entendre in the word “vibranium.”
Wakanda’s embrace of isolationism is also familiar to contemporary American rhetoric. Should the country use its power to combat strife across the world? Some of Wakanda’s tribes, on the brink of rebelling against T’Challa’s throne, believe it should. Or should Wakanda mind its own business? This was the way of T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani), and his administration is revealed over the course of “Black Panther” to have quite a few skeletons in its closet.
“Black Panther” was co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler, of “Fruitvale Station” and the surprisingly wonderful “Rocky” reboot “Creed.” To a lesser degree, Coogler tweaks the superhero template the way he modified the “Rocky” formula, showing how easily seemingly ancient narrative formulas can be opened up to critique themselves. In “Black Panther,” talk of colonizers is complemented by a colorful Afro-centric aesthetic that suggests a fusion of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” with the hallucinatory cover of Miles Davis’s album, “Bitches Brew.”
Drinking in this film’s colors, the reds of a South Korean casino, the clean blues of a waterfall, the explosive hues of the Wakandan tribes, the sleek, art decolike silver of Shuri’s lab -- reminds one of how depressingly staid most mainstream cinema is by contrast. American cinema’s lack of variety, particularly in action films, is underscored by the pointed prominence in “Black Panther” of women. In addition to Shuri, there’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), an undercover spy, a charismatic warrior named Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Ramonda (Angela Bassett), the queen mother of Wakanda.
Coogler’s talent comes through in the small moments, when he establishes the inner workings of Wakanda’s kingdom and informs action scenes with Spielbergian grace notes, such as a shot of a sports car that’s reduced to a seat and a hood skiing along a freeway. As blockbuster monoliths go, “Black Panther” is a relatively good time. It is middle-tier Marvel, behind “Iron Man 3,” “Ant-Man,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Thor: Ragnarok” and ahead of most of the others.
Should a film concerned with race war be fun though? Maybe, in the right circumstances, as there’s a rich history of mining social atrocities for escapist art. But Marvel films, which are proficient corporate product with only a veneer of personality, are a creepy and disingenuous venue for such preaching. This is why honest trifles like “Ant-Man” tend to play better.
Like Pixar and the “Star Wars” property, Marvel Studios is owned by the Walt Disney Co. And “Black Panther” follows a playbook similar to that of “Star Wars: the Last Jedi,” sprinkling political talking points onto what is ultimately the same-old tediously expository action formula. This is how we sell amusement park rides in the “woke” age.
The chief villain of “Black Panther” is Killmonger (“Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” star Michael B. Jordan, who steals the film), a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who strives to take over Wakanda and use its powers to start a global uprising for people of color. This a heady premise, which self-consciously fuses contemporary discussions of racism with controversies surrounding recent wars.
Yet Killmonger isn’t new. He’s Magneto of “The X-Men” or the Joker of “The Dark Knight” or Kylo Ren of “The Last Jedi” -- a wild card who’s never allowed to get his way. What if a gargantuan fantasy film were to explore the ramifications of the revolutions it dangles in front of audiences? That might be too close for comfort for Disney, which, with the recent addition of 20th Century Fox to its vast war chest, seems well on its way to achieving a monopoly over pop culture.