With the Marvel Cinematic Universe ten years in and nearing double digits in terms of installments, it’s amazing how they still manage to maintain not just relevance in the public eye, but even overwhelming excitement. So much so, in fact, that a large chunk of the online discourse in the days up to Black Panther’s release became about whether it was being over-hyped by an exceedingly zealous fan-base and an under-represented section of geekdom hungry for a character to call their own. The main fear was that it would have nothing new to offer except a superficial afro-futurist paint-job over typical blockbuster fair.
Personally, I tend to think that the pressure to keep things fresh brings out the best in Marvel and Black Panther is one of their most unique films. There’s no doubt this is a Marvel movie and while I’ve always had my misgivings with the homogeneity of the superhero/action movie/blockbuster scene, I have to tip my hat whenever there’s enough substance to the material.
A major theme of Marvel’s 3rd phase so far has been creating worlds for characters to inhabit and interact with outside of the traditional cityscapes. From the Kirby-esque junkyard metropolis in Thor: Ragnarok, to Ego the living planet, to the psychedelic parallel dimensions of Doctor Strange, the movie universe is turning into an enigmatic, multi-faceted character in it’s own right and Wakanda further cements their commitment to expanding its various corners. Wakanda is not just background scenery or a CGI backdrop for exploding wreckage to amass, it is the central conflict of the film. This time around, Marvel appear to have constructed a setting and a narrative that deals with the idea of “Africanness” clashing with post-colonial identity.
The movie has garnered much praise and rightfully so. The characters are engaging, the plot is tightly scripted and, yes, it’s fantastic to see African culture properly represented outside of ‘white saviour’ plots or as some sort of exploitative misery safari. There’s not much left to say about Black Panther that hasn’t been said already, but I’ll try nonetheless, because there are some elements that are worth examining that haven’t gotten a fair shake in mainstream discussion. Mainly, I’d like to talk about it’s use of African mythology as it’s narrative through-line and how it puts it into context with places in the real world.
Thematic Relevance of Wakanda
While the issue of representation can never really be untethered from Black Panther, the discussion usually veers towards the skin colour of the actors as opposed to the ideas and aesthetics within the film itself. Even in the most niche corners of Hollywood, movies about Africa that assume the first person perspective are rare. Usually they inhabit an outsider’s frame of mind instead, tinting the entire experience with the conventions of Western narrative.
Even though the skeletal framework of the plot is a deeply Western one (part Lion King, part Rocky 3), it draws all of its symbolism from African cultures. The movie draws heavily from various runs in the comics as well, most notably the Christopher Priest era, but its connections to the comics are not what make the movie resonate. In reality, its ties to African cultures and its own internal mythology are far more interesting in their execution. This forms the core of its magnificent use of Afro-futurism as a style of sci-fi and an examination of African and African-American cultures, their aspirations, and their critical conflict.
The movie does this by treating Wakanda as an idea and an extension of the concept of afro-futurism, i.e. examining African culture’s relationship with human progress. Wakanda is an African culture undiluted by colonial domination and given the ability to thrive in isolation for better and for worse.
Perversions of Tradition
While Marvel movies exhausted the trope of having the villain and the hero be representative of two sides of the same coin, Black Panther injects it with new life and makes it a necessary theme running throughout the whole movie. Killmonger is fascinating because of his similarities to T’Challa but he resonates most because of the ways they differ. Just as T’Challa and his cohort represent African culture at its best, Killmonger’s entire philosophy is a dark distortion of it, indicative of his disillusionment and Western upbringing.
The parallels run deep and are a natural result of their respective histories. Take, for example, T’Challa’s relationship to Wakandan traditions. His first act as king is to tear everything down to build a more militaristic vision over the remains, a style of management taught to him during his tenure in the CIA, the intelligence wing of the 21st century’s most imperial power. On just about every level, he sees Wakanda as a material object and his allies as disposable pawns. Not only is this a crucial part of his praxis, it’s even conveyed through how he performs African rituals but is incapable of understanding their true purpose.
In African cultures, alteration or mutilation of the body and the individual’s spiritual journey are a major theme. The writers showcase this in multiple forms throughout the movie. Okoye despises wearing a wig because her shaven head is a symbol of dedication to the throne. We see another leader wearing lip discs, a sign of spiritual commitment. The Black Panther takes an herb from holy ground and buries his body in the soil to communicate with his ancestors.
Killmonger has his own rituals, but not ones that tie to some higher spiritual goal or traditional values. He marks his own body with scars representing every person he’s ever murdered. It’s a form of ritualistic self-mutilation one might expect from a serial killer, reminiscent of Victor Zsasz from Batman.
His entire identity revolves around the disposability of human life and burying his own inferiority complex. Even when he visits the land of the dead, he doesn’t see Wakanda, but the apartment where his father died. It’s not exactly a heartfelt reunion like T’Challa’s. He even remarks that, “everybody dies. That’s just life around here.“
The Villain’s Journey
The movie starts off with a lush, animatic prologue that details the history of Wakanda as told by a Father to his son. This narrative device is more often associated with the hero’s backstory and childhood aspirations. In Black Panther we eventually find out that this is happening from Killmonger’s perspective, and is fueling his rage over the kingdom he lost.
The metaphor isn’t hard to catch. Killmonger voices the rage felt by many of African descent at having their utopia stripped from them. It’s an angst directed not just towards the colonizers, but also the remaining inhabitants of their former home who did nothing to help them after the fact. The best story arcs are the ones that cause mutual change when thesis and antithesis are strong enough to create a compelling synthesis.
What makes Killmonger compelling as an antagonist is that he is wrong for all the right reasons. He wants to modernise Wakanda, but by instating the very same imperial doctrines that destroyed Africa. He wants to aid the struggle of the surrounding countries that Wakanda neglects but only through more bloodshed and combat. He ends up representing a malignant strain of modern globalisation attempting to replace an archaic system of power.
At one point he says, “not your own? But didn’t life start right here on this continent? So ain’t all people your people?“, a clear perversion of a common humanist African sentiment, instead being used as a justification for global conflict.
Despite his defeat, he causes a sorely needed reevaluation of Wakanda’s relationship to the rest of the world. The film makes absolutely clear that Killmonger is wrong, but Wakanda and its history do not get a free pass either.
Crashing the Utopian Dream
T’Challa has to come to terms with his father’s sins and the fractures created by the monarchy’s unwillingness to reveal the kingdom to the world, and bring Wakanda into the global community.
Despite what the alt-right Twitter trolls would have you believe, the movie does not approve of Wakanda’s isolationist policies. It goes out of it’s way to prove that Wakanda is not some paradise, but a deeply flawed product of fear and mistrust. For everything it gained technologically, it remains in the stone age in terms of diplomacy, power structures, and ideological pluralism. Wakanda watches its structures subverted by a mad king as he reveals just how fragile their systems of power truly are. Their reliance on brute strength becomes their undoing, and the secrecy that was supposed to protect them produces a monster unlike any other.
The filmmakers aren’t tone deaf, either. Marvel display just enough self-awareness about the ethical implications of Wakanda’s policies, especially considering that one of the major fight scenes of the movie leads to a car chase through South Korea – a crucial neighbour to the world’s most famous isolationist, totalitarian state. This is one of only two major sequences that don’t take place in Wakanda or Oakland. They didn’t pick the location without considering the associations it creates. One would think Marvel would have actually shot the scene in North Korea, if the idea weren’t logistically impossible and politically problematic.
There is of course a 4th crucial location, and it’s the one where we first meet Killmonger. In a museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, he conducts a heist at a cultural exhibit where various items of African origin are on display. He “takes back” the item that he firmly believes belongs to him and his culture as an act of symbolic revenge in the very country that introduced apartheid.
The four core locations in the film all form the backbone of its political commentary. If the film’s political convictions aren’t clear in how the writers resolved the plot, it should be absolutely apparent from their choice of locations.
Despite my glowing praise for how it carries its themes, I’m not going to pretend the movie is perfect. T’Challa leans too much towards a reactive protagonist for my taste, and at times, the fight scene CGI looks rubbery. Often, I feel that it doesn’t condemn Wakanda’s problematic elements enough. There are moments where the movie could be more polished; however, these moments are few and far between. What the movie loses in subtlety, it repays in raw spirit.
Will it endure beyond our current pop culture atmosphere? I can’t answer that. Ground-breaking doesn’t necessarily mean long-lasting. Cinema is having a moment of exploration and once it ends, we’ll have to reexamine which movies stood the test of time. Will it remain special when more studios decide to do their spin on afro-futurism, or will Black Panther look like a quaint stepping stone to better things?
I don’t have the answer to those questions. What I do know is that it is engaging in a conversation that was necessary and taking it beyond the lexicon of purely Western interpretations of African culture, whilst proving that many of Hollywood’s assumptions about film consumption habits are sorely mistaken.
My first full film review for this website was for 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, a movie whose failure puts Black Panther’s success into perspective. Executives replaced persons of colour with people they assumed would constitute a box office draw. The conventional thinking within the studio being that nobody would show up to a movie that had mostly non-white people. Beyond the whitewashing, they even tinkered the script till it resembled Blade Runner and Robocop more than the original source material, feeling another culture’s artefacts may be too alien for global audiences and reducing the message to another trite, post-9/11 anti-government message.
Conversely, with Black Panther, we have a movie where the studio trusted the source material and the audience’s willingness to view the world primarily through the eyes of another culture, even though it’s a fictional composite. If Black Panther provides anything, it is the message that it sends to Hollywood: that they need not shackle all their big budget endeavours to the familiar.