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Vibrant color and unusual images are a big part of what sets this movie apart visually.

Watching Black Panther occasionally felt like I was glimpsing a superhero movie from an alternate world. The obvious way to parse that statement is to focus on the virtually all-black cast or that 99% of the dialogue is delivered in heavy African accents. Of course, these things make Black Panther unique among not only superhero movies, but also big budget “tent-poles” as well. There’s really never been a movie like this one and it, for lack of a better word, shows. But for me, the otherworldly quality of Black Panther had to do with the ways it’s familiar as well as different. The juxtaposition of the MCU movie, in terms of story priorities and aesthetics, and Black Panther as something wholly its own thing, is an interesting and impressive one. And it plays out in every frame of the movie.

Another quality that might make you feel like you’re watching a movie from another, better dimension is how there’s no pandering to the assumptions of a white male audience. Not only is Black Panther brazenly, unflinchingly feminist, it’s also not really about race in the way we would expect a movie for white people (but about black people) to be. It’s not out to educate white folks about the issues of race they may be sleeping on or resistant to. Instead, it’s assuming the audience gets it already by virtue of being black or woke or both and if not, can catch the fuck up. It assumes the audience understands terms like “colonizer” (or will quickly infer and understand it) and takes it as a given that images of Africa are often wrong-headed and reductive. In other words, it assumes the intelligence and awareness of the viewer. That’s rare these days.

Through its fantasy-tinged blend of Afro-futurism and homages to a broad spectrum of African cultures, Black Panther is assuming people won’t utterly miss the point by getting hung up on “Wakanda isn’t real” and instead understanding that it fucking is real. It’s an aspiration to an ideal that is nonetheless based on and informed by murkier realities. Wakanda isn’t Camelot, or the mythic City on the Hill. But it also sort of is. While confronting about a dozen other thorny, difficult sociopolitical issues, director and co-writer (with Joe Robert Cole) Ryan Coogler makes some time to also address that even a place that sees itself as the African ideal also has problems. No City on the Hill should forget what’s under that hill, or around it, and it’s that attention to broader ramifications (from a consistently fresh perspective) that makes Black Panther so much more than just a “black superhero movie”. But of course, it is that too. And if a “black superhero movie” has so much more to offer than the average “white superhero movie”, we’ve all got to rethink some shit.

That all said, Black Panther is still a movie. And it’s not a perfect one. Its two most noticeable flaws are relatively minor, though, and it manages to subvert expectations on the movie mechanics places where Marvel typically falls a bit short (formula and villains). The first of the flaws plays into the feeling of wanting more that people might have as the movie ends. The plot is in a huge hurry, leaving a few emotional moments or setups/payoffs with not enough time to fully breathe. That means the smaller, subtler moments do more heavy lifting. That’s not a terrible balance, in the end, meaning the movie kind of has itself covered. The second flaw is that its big battle sequence at the end doesn’t work the way it should, feeling kind of like it was added late in production and never quite polished to the same degree the rest of the movie is. Mileage will vary on that one, though, but I don’t think it will on Black Panther in general. The glowing reviews aren’t some attempt to get on the right side of a cultural moment. It is a legitimately great movie and an exemplary MCU movie.

SPOILERS FOREVER.

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There’s imagery in here that will need to be absorbed a few times.

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is formally made king of Wakanda, the secretive African country that’s been mentioned a few times in other MCU movies as a source of vibranium. Before being crowned and officially assuming the mantles of both Black Panther and King of Wakanda, T’Challa takes the general of his all-female elite guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), on a mission to track down Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a friend and sweetheart who works as a kind of spy/field agent outside of Wakanda. In these early moments of the movie, we’re introduced not only to Wakanda as a physical place, but also the various ideologies and influences that shape it. Nakia doesn’t believe in the traditionalist standpoint of protectionism and isolation that have kept Wakanda cut off from the world. From his own adventures, T’Challa seems to be caught between her perspective (Wakanda can and should help the world) and the traditions of his forebears and thus his responsibility to uphold them.

In the opening scene of Black Panther, we learn that Wakanda’s vibranium came from a meteor impact. In the aftermath, five tribes came together (more or less) to live together and use the power bestowed on them by vibranium, which is far more than just the strongest metal on earth. In a way that evokes the land-based ways of knowing that have survived in the customs and teachings of indigenous groups the world over, we see how vibranium and its impact on the environment has touched every aspect of Wakanda’s history and the life of its people. This relationship is echoed throughout the movie, often in tiny missable visuals or moments that beg to be revisited. Isolated by choice and circumstance from the rest of the world, Wakanda becomes a shining beacon of progress both technologically and socially. In other words, an isolationist African City on the Hill. The parallels with America’s protectionist, isolationist ethos prior to the World Wars seem fairly intentional. Wakanda seems to be a thought experiment about what a country could do if it had the wealth, technology, and socially progressive culture that America has or had (in some, very relative, ways –the parallel is not 1:1) but chose to remain isolated rather than wielding that power in the world. The question of how such power could or should be wielded in the world is at the center of Black Panther‘s broader themes.

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The visual tapestry of Wakanda demands more time, so I’m glad we’ll be seeing it again in Infinity War.

T’Challa promises his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that he’ll tie up the loose end of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) once and for all. If you don’t remember Klaue, he’s the dude that provided Wakandan vibranium to Ultron back in Age of Ultron. He was locked up for a bit by Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) but is on the loose again, trying to make a deal on behalf of Eric (Michael B. Jordan), a mysterious new player who quickly turns out to have a helluva lot more to do with Wakanda than he first seems. When T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye are able to catch Klaue, it’s Eric that helps him get away. A chance glimpse of a familiar ring gets T’Challa questioning just who this guy is and the answer shakes his whole world up.

In some ways, Black Panther is a palace intrigue movie. This is fascinating because it’s a familiar subgenre but it’s almost always (as with Thor) couched in the iconography and language of Western Europe. Here, it’s complicated by the specific situation of Wakanda and the way this situation plays out and then reverberates throughout the movie is a great example of the delicacy and sophistication with which it treats its subject matter, in turn reflecting a lot of respect for the audience. Through the tropes of this subgenre, we get to explore a lot of the political makeup of Wakanda and its fusion between traditionalism and progressive embrace of the new.

The various tribes of Wakanda all have different degrees to which they’ve evolved even in isolation. Interestingly, Wakanda seems to be a kind of constitutional monarchy where the King rules with a council of tribal elders, all of whom retain the right to issue a challenge for the throne. This means that the mantle of King and Black Panther isn’t always going to father then son, but probably changed hands among the tribes throughout their history. Cool shit like this is alluded to more than stated by the film, but it gives the viewer a sense of a wider and deeper world behind the events we’re following. The world-building in Black Panther is thus some of the best in the MCU or comic book superhero movies in general. And so much of it is visual! Again, implying a lot of trust that the viewer will pick up some cues and that our imaginations will run wild. People who dug the way Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok knitted together unusual, visually interesting worlds will seriously love Black Panther‘s similar approach.

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It’s pretty cool that some of the older actors’ sons were able to play the younger versions of them.

In a flashback near the beginning of the movie, we see a basketball game in a “bad” neighborhood. Some kids using a milk crate as a basket, while a dilapidated housing project looms above them. It’s an instantly familiar series of images, one we’ve seen countless times in media both as expressions of the black experience from their own perspective as well as used against them to reduce them all to underprivileged criminals preying on their own in the ruins of white society’s attempts to “help” them. Continuing this subtle tension is the following moments where two black dudes, costumed to be visually reminiscent of street gang members check weapons and plan some kind of robbery. This is all the kind of stuff we could expect to open a California-set crime movie. Any minute now, a couple of cops are going to bust in there. You can almost see it.

Coogler knows what he’s doing. No cops show up, because of course not. This is not that kind of movie. Instead, a UFO-looking light appears in the sky and two “Grace Jones looking” women appear at the thugs’ door. The whole thing changes, becomes recontextualized. And, as I am fond of saying, context is king. All of a sudden, there’s nothing familiar about this. Wakandan warriors looking like something out of, well, a Marvel movie, stride in and face off against two black guys that look far more familiar to your average viewer. One goes to his knees and suddenly we’re watching a reunion between the regal King T’Chaka (Atwanda and John Kani) and his faux-gangsta brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who is working as a spy in America. As the pleasantries subside, we find out that Klaue, the only person who’s ever breached Wakandan security and stolen vibranium, only did so with N’Jobu’s help. N’Jobu isn’t doing it for profit –he’s doing it because he’s been traumatized and radicalized by the suffering of black folks as he’s witnessed it in the USA and elsewhere. He wants to use Wakandan resources to stop it, something he knows the isolationist and traditional King will never support. In a scuffle, N’Jobu is killed by T’Chaka to protect Zuri (Denzel and Forest Whitaker). Only later is it revealed that he left behind a son, who was never brought home to Wakanda in an effort to protect the secret that N’Jobu died at his own brother’s hands, or that he was a traitor and enemy of Wakanda. Instead, he simply “disappeared”.

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Secrets create monsters. Ain’t I been saying it?

The result is Eric, whose nickname Killmonger comes to be the best way to refer to him, and so he becomes one of the MCU’s most tragic and relatable villains. He’s not only the forgotten son of an Empire, rightfully questioning both his and its place in the world, but he’s also an echo of the lost generation of young men ground up in the American war machine simply because they had no place to go. He absolutely believes in his father’s vision of liberating black folks around the world using Wakandan weapons, but takes it even further by declaring his ambition to create a new world order, a Wakandan empire. While T’Challa calls him a monster that Wakanda created, he’s also a monster that Ross’s government helped create. Even though Ross never explicitly takes responsibility, his clinical description of Eric’s training and state of mind are tinged with regret. In this sense, we see what America is in relation to Wakanda: a place of power and wealth that decided its the only place that knows the right way to live, thus exercising that power in a complex mixture of intervention and imperialism.

Killmonger’s quest is to gain access to Wakanda and challenge the King, which is his right but needs legitimacy in the form of Klaue’s dead body. When we first see Eric turn on Klaue, I wondered why the movie had him rescuing the guy moments before. Only when he flies alone to Wakanda did his true purpose click with me (I’m slow sometimes). His whole life has been about that, and we watch him make ruthless sacrifices and choices to get there. He’s easy to root for, in a way, because it’s seductive to want what he wants: a game-change. But of course, revolutionaries can go too far and become the very oppressors they seek to overthrow. Killmonger openly admits his imperial ambitions, pushing his ideas, even the laudable anti-oppression ones, to the extreme. The way he rules Wakanda in his brief tenure is authoritarian and brutal, underscoring other thematic tensions in the film, particularly Okoye’s loyalty, the central tenet of her character. Also the way Wakanda’s adherence to tradition in a changing world leaves it vulnerable to the agents of that change, which so often are agents of chaos.

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The Jubari, as cool as they are, kind of appear out of the plains like magic in this scene.

After being overthrown by Killmonger (fairly, too, which is interesting), T’Challa recovers with the help of his remaining allies and the somewhat belligerent Mountain Tribe, led by the charismatic but stern M’Baku (Winston Duke). While initially refusing to help T’Challa regain the throne, he shows up at the clutch moment to back him up anyway, bringing the Jubari out of their own isolation and echoing the global themes of the movie and T’Challa’s struggle to figure out how to deal with the tension between Killmonger and Nakia’s true claims about the world and the historic and traditional isolation of Wakanda. T’Challa being alive means that the challenge has not concluded and Killmonger isn’t really King. But with a real question about how far to take Wakandan traditions in a very unique situation, we see the realistic and real-time breakdown of the hold those traditions have. The all-female guard side with T’Challa since Okoye now has the loophole she needs to maintain loyalty both to the throne and her friend, while W’Kabi refuses to withdraw his support for Killmonger (gained literally over Klaue’s dead body). In an ironic twist worthy of Game of Thrones, he’s serving the interests of the son of the man who authored his own misery and anger. And it’s also meaningful that Okoye and W’Kabi are lovers, torn apart even briefly by competing ideologies.

The battle is a bit clumsily staged, as I said before. W’Kabi’s tribe have a thing with war rhinos which are cool, but not utilized well here. There’s also an almost comical number of times people get thrown through the air only to land safely in the grass, rather than on one of the many boulders that litter the battlefield. Also, as cool as it is in theory, I think W’Kabi’s tribe’s energy shields are kinda dumb looking. Oh well, they couldn’t nail every visual in this visual feast, could they? And again, mileage is going to vary on this stuff.

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER L to R: Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan)  Ph: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2018

This fight is a bit dodgy and fast. This is a movie far less interested in action than it is in discourse, after all.

Moving on from the recap part, it’s time to talk a little more about the themes and broader impact of Black Panther. For one thing, it’s a legitimate cultural moment but one that is going to pass some white people by because it’s not “our” moment. That bothers and threatens some people, because of course it does. It’s 2018 and edgy shitheads think white supremacy is “cool” now. If you don’t believe me that there’s a scary and bizarre backlash against this movie’s very existence, check this and this out. There’s also some sign that the Rotten Tomatoes audience score system is being tampered with again. So I mean, given the moment we’re at, it’s kind of significant for a movie to brazenly ignore the usual way white audiences are pandered to in order to make the necessary points that black people are people or that American black history is a fucking horror show (but also much more than that). Or that our ideas about Africa need to be reexamined. Or that women are just as capable as men.

Black Panther does this thing that is sometimes called “acting as if”. It’s not stopping to make a point about the way women are held back in society, it’s acting as if we’re past all that by showing us female characters who are not held back by fragile male egos. It’s not stopping to make points about racialization or the black experience either, in the educational sort of way white people are used to (and then whine about because white guilt and white fragility). It just acts as if we already get it, we’re already conversant in this stuff, and we have an interest in addressing the problem. And that’s not just because Black Panther respects the audience, as I said before. It’s also because in a very real way, it’s speaking directly to people who are already living the “as if” or who are at least on board with making it a reality. For the themes of racial oppression and colonization, that’s more directly about the black experience I think. But black feminists have also carved a way forward to the future by confronting the blindness and indifference of white feminists, making Black Panther a thing that stands on the shoulders of bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adechie as much as it does on those of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, or Malcolm X. The supporting cast of the movie is almost entirely female, all of whom showing fully realized dimensions of not only female empowerment but black female empowerment in a way that’s never been offered in a movie of this scale. That’s a key choice and a really fucking exciting one. Shuri (Letitia Wright), Ramonda (Angela Basset), Okoye, and Nakia are all instantly iconic characters and while I might complain about the headlong rush of the plot in Black Panther, it always has time for its amazing cast of supporting players. Even Ross is treated with dignity, though Shuri quips that he’s “another broken white boy” they need to fix. That’s meta as fuck, evoking the way black folks (and others) are constantly asked to explain and educate about white privilege, colonization, and racial oppression. To wit, a possibly futile attempt at fixing all the broken white boys who’d rather jeer at or kill black people than live beside them.

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Get ready for Black Panther gifs.

The thing that I keep coming back to about Killmonger and T’Challa is how they’re disconnected mostly by circumstance. Black Panther is stacked with powerful themes and messages, from the broadly political to the intimately personal. One of the most personal is how T’Challa’s personal development, where he can become a “good man with a good heart” for whom it’ll be hard to be King, stems from the support he’s had his whole life. In some ways, Black Panther is about that support (he’s got maybe the biggest support network of specialist characters, each of which could be their own superhero, in the MCU) and what can happen when you don’t have it. Eric had no support, left adrift in a world where just surviving to adulthood is a challenge someone like Ross could probably never understand. Sympathy and compassion have largely been burnt out of Killmonger, and he can only let go of his hate at the bitter end. The irony is that T’Challa’s supported life gives him the empathy required to see through his father’s choice and understand Killmonger in much the same way as he understood Zemo and the bickering Avengers at the end of Civil War. That’s why it’s T’Challa who can really offer a game-change (in a scene that breathtakingly surpasses Tony Stark’s game-change moment at the end of Iron Man), who can synthesize the ideological differences that tore he and his cousin apart and set them on a collision course. I’m also interested in the extent to which this relationship is informed by tensions or otherwise between the experiences of black Africans and black Americans. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of that or what might be being said in Black Panther about it, but it’s very interesting all the same.

Anyway, T’Challa literally turns his back on centuries of his forebears, inviting him into an afterlife of peace and rest, deciding that he’s got to right the wrongs his enemy has correctly identified. It’s an important lesson to learn. It’s the people with compassion and empathy in spite of their own values that will be able to pave the way forward, not the radical or extreme or the reactionary. Or the grumpily despairing.

So I think even as Black Panther presents an optimistic vision for black audiences to celebrate, it also appeals very much to this ostensibly white critic who appreciates any narrative that pushes past the increasingly absurd debate with the “other side” and provides concrete examinations of what is possible when we drop all that shit we know doesn’t work, no matter how many equivocations or whataboutisms we have to endure while we try to move on. That’s why I’ve got no time for the people saying this movie “isn’t for them”. So fucking what? You even saying that might be the very reason why you need to see it. T’Challa might try to find the merit in your position even while maintaining his own, but he’s a better man than me.

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