Marvel Studios has been at the forefront of the comic book film genre for over a decade. That is a long time to be an apex producer of content. And it seems their continued success, or at the very least, longevity is hinged into the idea of narratives that hook into its predecessors in a long string of narrative events. It was pretty much what I then expected from Black Panther. Another post marker in a slew of films to come down the road. I generally lost faith in trailers, because a well-edited trailer can mislead. Hell, new CGI footage is often put in trailers for the fun of it. But there were other elements that gave me hope. Director Ryan Coogler. Michael B. Jordan. Lupita Nyong’o. TWD‘s Danai Gurira. The Jamaican stunt-woman, Janeshia Adams-Ginyard, that we follow on Instagram who kicks major ass with a smile. And Martin Freeman. Fargo was my shit.
So having that said, whatever the outcome, I dedicated myself to see Black Panther. And out the gate, it felt new. At my local cinema, we had to form a line to go into IMAX. Premiere days are often like that for the likes of Star Wars and mega-blockbuster films. But I watched Thor Ragnarok on premiere day too and there was no such queue. All you have to do is consider that the film is comprised of 90% black actors, a black director, a black producer and a soundtrack from Kendrick Lamar and the TDE collective to see this is a first. Not to mention the records obliterated via pre-booked tickets for Marvel and Disney. The hype was there in full effect. Online had #BlackPantherChallenge, cosplay and art enthusiasts using the little information presented in posters and trailers to create astonishingly accurate renders and costumes. But even with all that, there comes a moment of truth – that moment on screen when the film begins.
SO does Black Panther do itself justice? And what does it signal for the coming films in the Marvel ensemble?
Bare with us because there is so much to unpack.
This seems like a bold statement to begin with, but if you consider what Marvel has done in the past, it will not seem that big a leap. Black Panther is more a “Dynasty” film, one of birthright and inner-family dynamics that makes villains and heroes of us all.
Our story begins in the 80’s in the inner cities of California, where N’Jobu, a Wakanda-native spy, has ‘lost’ his path. He amasses a small arsenal along with having stolen a supply of Wakanda’s precious mineral Vibranium. However, the King of Wakanda –T’Chaka (T’challa’s father) – pays his brother a visit. N’Jobu is then exposed by his associate who was also present. Unbeknownst to N’Jobu, his associate was a young Zuri, sent to spy on him. We then learn about N’Jobu’s intention; the suffering, murder and genocide of black people was clawing at his soul. The oppressive, racist regimes of the world he felt had to be mediated through revolution. A revolution that would have to see black people better armed. Armed with weapons made from the near-indestructible Vibranium. And Wakanda, having so much, seemed content to remain in the shadows whilst the world seethed with violence about her.
N’Jobu’s treachery leads to violent confrontation, and a swift claw to the chest, to protect Zuri, has T’Chaka slaying N’Jobu. Brother killing brother. To make matters worse, N’Jobu has a son. Half-Wakandan, with various implications that would make him unaccepted and an outcast by full-bloodied Wakandan. Erik “Killmonger”. Who at the time of his father’s death, sees strange lights in the sky from a departing hi-tech Wakanda ship.
Already you have Abel and Cain connotations. And pulling your lower lip down to expose a Vibraniam-laced tattoo showing you’re from a tribe in Wakanda is harder than any gangster posturing I have ever seen. But it gets deeper.
We move to present day after the UN incident in Captain America: Civil War that leaves T’Chaka dead. Now T’Challa is set to become King of Wakanda. But the right of passage isn’t without resistance. To become Wakanda’s King, T’Challa has to go through a trial of blood if there was contention for the throne. We also have to say that the first ceremony-waterfall-duel scene where all the tribes bare-witness to the making of the king is about as colourful as a Marvel film has ever gotten. Thank you costume department. Not to mention the many represented and unique tribes of the Wakanda nation. The ceremony involves taking away the power of the Black Panther, a process that involves removing the mythical properties initially bestowed on the Black Panther by consuming a rare plant. And the contender for the throne either has to kill or force his opponent to yield. A scene that went on a bit too long in my opinion, but still enjoyable to watch.
But it is when the lost prodigal son of Wakanda, Erik Killmonger, comes home and demands to challenge T’Challa for the throne, Wakanda is plunged into civil war that threatens to seethe and boil over into the rest of the world.
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa most certainly was royalty. The suits he wore, and not just the Black Panther suit, is something that had me looking in my closet the day after saying to myself, “what are you doing with your life?”
T’Challa is presented to us a man not so much in dilemma over whether or not he is strong enough to lead an entire nation. In that sense I felt was a slight let down in the narrative department. Most of what he has to overcome is physical, particularly fighting Killmonger. As for his emotional journey, T’Challa went on through the spiritual burial twice. A hero has to die to be reborn. The first ceremony saw the spirit of T’Chaka giving T’Challa encouragement, ensure him the would be capable of leading without the physical guiding hand of the late king. The second saw T’Challa take on the sins of the father. The marr on T’Chaka’s legacy. Here is where we saw T’Challa’s inner conflict on screen.
T’Chaka said to his son that it is difficult for a good man to be king. It was a statement like that that one would expect a dire situation that would have T’Chaka balancing the livelihood of a few versus the many, of Wakanda versus outsiders. And that did happen. Small scenes but it were never in doubt that T’Challa would do the right thing. I guess a starker-form internal conflict is better suited for the villain in this case.
So even T’Challa decides to take Wakanda to the rest of the world, to have an outreach and cultural exchange between nations, a silent part of me was saying “fuck that”. Bad idea. As history and just human nature would dictate. You’ll be dealing with a million Ullyses Klaues before long.
Ulysses Klaue, the sleazy black market dealer, when being interrogated by CIA agent Everett Ross in the theft of a Vibranium artefact from the British Museum, Klaue reveals he knows the true whereabouts of Wakanda and the near limitless resource of Vibranium the African nation has. That the fabled – ‘El Dorado is, in fact, in Africa. And when we first see the rolling hills and plains of the African nation, we begin to see something very interesting. The merger of Afrocentrism with futurism. An embodiment that is known as Afrofuturism. And it is intrinsically done that it does not seem out of place. Well, maybe just the ‘shield garbs’ in the final fight scene between W’Kabi and his tribe against the royal guard and those loyal to T’Challa.
From the sand-like projections that formed 3D visuals to the very suit that T’Challa wears that has intricate, triangular motifs unique to African art and heritage, Black Panther’s fusion of culture and tech is something that has to be commended. The research and creative juxtaposing of these elements is a testament to the amount of time and effort that went in formulating an authentic look and feel of Black Panther.
A High-tech network of trains, years ahead of the rest of the world, transports the Vibranium that is used in Wakanda’s technological advancements, even woven into the very fibre of the Black Panther ceremonial king’s suit. Yes, ceremonial. Not just a regular old spandex costume. This particular distinction was brought about in the later comic book incarnations of Black Panther, and the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates helped to spur on the idea of a Wakanda being a nation of complex geopolitical issues, with various tribes all having their own cultures and traditions. Not a film that would dismiss Africa as one big amalgamation of sameness.
And with Black Panther, we got our first taste of nanites at work. Wakanda technology. The same being used by Iron Man for his suit as spotted in the Avengers: Infinity War trailer. And knowing the Stark family isn’t above ‘taking’ other peoples’ tech and modifying it, it looks like we know where Tony is about to get his upgrade from.
Understand when I say this – Erik Killmonger is the greatest villain in the history of the 10-year run at Marvel Studies. Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Vulture is second, but the distance between both is a noticeable one. And I do not say this lightly. Marvel villains have been eccentric in terms of grandeur or dress or scale. Or downright confusing. I am looking at you, Mandarin / Iron Man 3. But with all the costume and one-liners they lacked the core essence of what makes the villain compelling. The “redeeming” factor. That element that makes you understand the motives and actions of the enemy. That makes you damn-near sympathise with him. Save for a glaring character flaw, the best villains should leave us conflicted. Compelled to look inwards at our own moral compasses and have us question how are we any different. Who are we to judge?
Erik Killmonger had his father killed by his Uncle, T’Chaka, the then King of a Wakanda. A hidden African nation that would see him as less than because his mother did not share his father’s Wakanda lineage. That anger at rejection from society – that is an ugly thing to deal with. Especially as a black man. And that anger and negative energy has to go somewhere.
But it is not just revenge that brings him to Wakanda. He also wants what was denied to him. A home. A place that his father N’Jobu spoke fondly of. Erik wants to honour his father. A father that had a dream to see the oppressed peoples of the world liberated with the means of defending themselves. Vibranium-grade weapons was the only alternative N’Jobu saw that would give black people a fighting chance. And Killmonger sought to complete that dream by formulating a plan that would see already-implanted Wakanda spies in countries worldwide bringing a new brand of Wakanda-law inspired by Anglo-hegemonic tactics.
As a villain, Killmonger is presented as a layered character with conflicting paradigms that makes you conscious of your own views and prejudices. No other villain has done this in Marvel. Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as I’ve said, is as close as we got; a look at the average family man taking on Stark’s Avengers and the empire of the 1%, how the rich never pay for their sins and how his crimes provided for his family.
The villain and hero must die to be reborn. They both go through the same process. The process in Black Panther is quite literally in the spiritual ceremony after achieving Kinghood that involves covering the new King in red dirt, from head to toe. Both T’Challa and Erik undergo the same process at different times in the film. For T’challa, he stood under the violet skies among Panthers, spiritual embodiments of his father T’Chaka and all his ancestors of old. A part of me expected Doctor Strange to pop his head in in some Casper-like Astral projection schtick. I swear if that did happen, I would have most certainly thrown my popcorn in the air, showering everyone with kernels, and walked out of the theatre. Thankfully, I was allowed to remain seated.
Erik’s ceremony leads him to somewhere darker – the small apartment where his father was killed. The shift between Erik as his older self and his younger-self paints a picture of vulnerability and regression; Erik is back in that moment, expecting to see his lifeless fathers body on the apartment floor. Erik unearths his father’s ring, a trinket to remember N’Jobu by. But his father is alive, as he is dead, in this spirit realm. It’s not exactly hell in the traditional ‘Christian’ sense, but it is a kind of perdition, one driven by utter loneliness, regret, and melancholy. And this is what always proceeds anger. And Erik has more than enough to be angry for.
Erik’s path was similar to T’Challa’s. A path marred by tragedy and loss of a father. The need for revenge. But one has to consider the age of Erik’s father’s death, and the lonely- family-less life he had to endure. Abandoned and orphaned, left to suffer despite being the son of a dynasty that was wealthy beyond the one’s wildest dreams.
And whilst both hero and villain go through the same tempering process, the outcome of their transformation is where the distinction between the two comes into play. T’Challa lost his father and for a moment the need for revenge took root in Civil War. And in Black Panther T’Challa urge to punish Klaue, an enemy to Wakanda, is quickly suppressed as he sees the “world is watching”. Erik, however, amps up his campaign of carnage. destroying the entire harvest of the rare plant that gives the famed superhuman strength and speed to the king – the Black Panther – when consumed. Consolidating power to himself and him alone.
Erik’s embodiment of the layered villain feels unique, even more so than the average power-hungry baddies like Ultron in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. We don’t get that one scene crowbarred in trying to humanise them to then return to the shits like Loki or Hela. Erik complex personality is in constant play. So it is quite refreshing as it is disturbing to see even after a decade, Marvel is still pulling out firsts. Erik, however, represents a spirit of a hideous thing that goes far past that of the philosophy of morality and villainy. Something that is rooted in the results of the greatest genocide and systematic oppressive system in the history of mankind.
Erik Killmonger offers up 99.9% of the chill-tastic moments you will find in Black Panther. And for good reason. He represents the plight and whoa of the African Diaspora. The Africans displaced worldwide by the atrocities of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. The oppressed who has experienced lynchings, genocide and systematic oppression and racism that was, and still is, enforced by Anglo-hegemonic laws. Apartheid. Jim Crow. The many tentacles of the beast. Erik is the embodiment of that. The aftermath of that.
The sentiment of the prodigal son, abandoned to then return to the doorsteps of his ancestral home evokes much feeling. That moment where Erik prompts T’Challa to ask him who he is, but T’Challa doesn’t bite as he finds out via Zuri that Erik is the son of N’Jobu; essentially, Erik is his cousin. And that sequence was awesome when one of the elders demands to know who he is that he would come here and demand a seat on the thrown. And without missing a beat, Erik speaks in his Wakanda’s mother tongue, defiant and brash, giving his native name and the name of his father. Absolutely brilliant presence.
Erik on top of the cliff seeing the ‘fairy tale’, arresting sunset he only envisioned from the words of his father N’Jobu up until that point. The defiance in claiming the throne of a nation that would not have wanted anything to do with him and his ‘impure’ lineage. The anger at what the mantle and legacy of the Black Panther meant to him. It is a sentiment that is understandable. With the likes of Marcus Garvey, the father of Pan-Africanism, we have seen efforts of the displaced Africans trying to find their way home, back to ancestral land. But, excuse any ignorance if this isn’t all the way true, there hasn’t seemed to have been a much-concerted effort to bring home the once displaced – the African Diaspora. Obviously the dynamic here is way more complex, as colonisers used socio-economic strategies, incited civil wars and a lot worse to plunder and throw African nations into a state of confusion and unrest. Tactics still in play to this very day. Africa has more dire problems.
But this hasn’t stopped the argument of abandonment among some. Erik’s rage at the status quo is a sentiment I think we’ve all felt to some degree, but the ugliness of it becomes more apparent when you not only look at Africa’s “inaction”. But in the case of Wakanda, the nation’s inaction to help the African Diaspora around the world is not due to civil war, or the meddling of Western powers, it is out of pure self-preservation to not become another nation corrupted by civil war and meddling Western powers. Wakanda has the resources that are not being mined by leeching foreign companies. In the lead up to the film, Wakanda was often referred to as what an African nation would be if it had not suffered centuries of rape, invasion, and pillaging. And the more you think about it, the more you realise it is an ugly truth.
Black Panther and Wakanda’s legacy explicitly speaks to the idea of an Africa whose narrative are rooted in culture but sprouts upwards to a tangible future. Compared to depictions of Africa perpetrated by mainstream media often showing desolation, civil war and corruption. What one doesn’t openly notice is the more implicit themes of what Black Panther represents. In this, I am speaking of the legacy of colonisation on not just the continent, but worldwide. And Black Panther achieves illuminating this is many ways, some overt, others subtle.
Understand this, Anglo-hegemonies tactics in meddling in others affairs by toppling regimes, controlling resources, spreading confusion and division in order to conquer is an old game. And part of the game involved erasing identity and culture. An effect still felt by the African Diaspora to date. Centuries of slavery followed by institutional, systematic oppression tends to do that. And Michael B. Jordan, the son of the African Diaspora, as much as he a Wakanda-native, he is also a product of Anglo-conditioning in the broader and smaller sense. ‘Broader’ as in the inevitable African cultural erosion which is all but a bi-product of living in
Amerikkka America. And ‘smaller’ in the sense of the lengths Killmonger went to hone his body in preparation for the act of regicide.
Michael B. Jordan finally found a Marvel film to shine in. Jordan spoke on likening his portrayal of Kilmonger to that of The Dark Knight’s Joker, which piqued or curiosity and anxiety all the same. It, however, now has to be said. Every chill-worthy moment has included an ugly quotable from Killmonger. The first would be the museum scene where a quite dapper Erik surveys the many (stolen) indigenous artefacts in the British Museum. Foreshadowed by a white woman who asks unprompted if she could help him is an experience I have had in many a retail store. And having worked in retail, the common tactic managers tell their staff is if you seem someone ‘suspect’ you should ask them if they need help. Well, fuck you. Prejudice is a motherfucker. But seeing Erik school the floor assistant on the true origins of the Vibranium artefact to then later give her a succinct verbal scolding on being followed around the museum as if he was going to steal, but everything in the museum itself was stolen by invaders held a certain irony. That and the fact he was there to actually steal. But that is neither here nor there.
Erik, as I have stated is the embodiment of the African Diaspora. But the rule of dichotomy also makes him the embodiment of colonial thinking. Militaristic strategy is hardly an anglo-creation, but America’s particular style of destabilising regions, controlling the resources and consolidating power is a brand of ‘diplomacy’ the Third World knows all too well. And Killmonger uses it here, in a devastatingly strategic way.
To walk into Wakanda he needed a bargaining chip. And that came with Klaue. Killmonger used Klaue’s carcass as leverage and to earn him favour in the eyes of W’Kabi, a leader of a warrior tribe in Wakanda who’s father died at the hands of Ulysses Klaue years ago. With one body he earned passage to Wakanda and support of a warring tribe. And dethroning T’Challa was the beginning. He consolidated power by destroying the rare plants that would give power of the Black Panther to future kings (thank god Lupita’s character Nakia managed to procure one before the harvest was set ablaze.
Erik’s militaristic background had him racking up kills across the globe. Even Everett Ross vouches for his track record. Each kill Erik has made is represented by the tiny scars on his body. And it was enough to transform his Creed-physique what looks like mail armor. Brutal as that sounds and looks, nothing beats the moments where he reveals them to T’Challa. He speaks about the destiny of the very moment her would face the mantle of the Black Panther. How he learned the art of killing and war in Iraq and the Middle East. How he killed even his “own brothers and sisters on this continent” to reach here. To hone his skills and to buy his time. All just to kill whoever sits on the throne of Wakanda. It is a truly ugly scene. And it was important for me to hear. It was also important for Erik to ‘win’ the bout the way he did. Nothing underhanded in tactics, but a fair fight. His villainy is as much his circumstance as it is his choices. He does have a legitimate claim to the throne. And he did partake in the custom to make the challenge. Only if his motives were pure, maybe we wouldn’t feel too bad about T’Challa presumably losing by being thrown over a cliff. And therein lies the main distinction betwixt hero and villain.
And sadly, the cancer spreads. Particularly in the scene where the actions and presence of Killmonger lead to tribe fighting against tribe. Civil war. Even W’Kabi was a-washed with the scene of chaos… eventually. It led me to think about another African country that saw the return of ex-slaves to Africa who then exerted the same harrowing acts of violence and brutality that was done to them by white slave owners in America and the Caribbean – Liberia.
This is the legacy of colonialism. A self-perpetuating cycle of unrest, savagery and violence to achieve dominance and control of a people. Not exactly the type of export Europe should be proud of.
This is chess, not checkers. So if you think the king is the most valuable piece on the board, you should really check the ones who are protecting him. And surrounding Black Panther is a shield just as great, even greater than any nanite – women.
The Dora Milaje – the elite bodyguards to the king, is a fighting force comprised completely of women. Bald headed, spear-equipped bad-asses that take their task seriously. Cue scene fighting Killmonger or Everett getting way too familiar with T’Challa condescendingly giving him a small smack on the chest. Danai brought some of her infamous sour-faced, pissed-off TWD expressions with her in her portrayal of elite Dora Milaje member Okoye.
Somewhere in here, there is a lesson to be learned, Amazons. Wonder Woman had high flying Amazons that fell a little short when it came to ‘primitive’ gunplay. But not Okoye. Worse in Justice League the Amazons’ fabled fighting prowess degenerated into a game of “keep-away” with parademons and Steppenwolf.
There is also the love interest in Lupita’s Nakia character; she left Wakanda out of her need to help those suffering on the continent and the world, whether it’s saving trafficked women, saving child soldiers or hunting down ivory dealers. A distinct difference to the status quo of Wakanda which seems to be about the law of preservation. Understandably. Nakia and N’Jobu both felt Wakanda should be doing more and owed to the world to share its advancements with those in need. Both their ideas of what that entailed may have been different, but their desire was all the same.
And an interesting contrast between Nakia and Okoye was also interesting to see too. How Okoye refers to Nakia as a spy who is free to get up and leave, whilst she will remain piously serves the throne, even if it is Killmonger. She definitely wasn’t happy, but her loyalty was unshakeable. Nakia, however, had to remind her that it was her service to Wakanda that was paramount. Just a nice little exchange I thought that showed a dynamism that maybe Okoye harboured some slight resentment for ‘deserting’ Wakanda and T’Challa. Not two loves fighting for one guy. But two women debating the finer details of what loyalty to the material versus ideals.
And we surely cannot forget the sister Shuri, who had all the tech and advanced gear for Black Panther. Wit, creative, multi-genius. Not to mention funny. “You scared me, coloniser!”
From Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett shall now be referred to as Queen Angela Bassett) to the Dora Milaje and Shuri, women are the backbone of Wakanda.
There has been a few headlines wanting that insinuate there was a lack of LGBT representation. But in any case, women show up and show out. Just let us just have this one.
Black Panther is Marvel’s top 3 greatest film since Marvel Studios began a decade ago. Easily. Other films got the villain wrong, or the narrative flow was stagnated in places, or the trilogy construct was all but aborted like Ego’s bastard kids. Black Panther is the closest to a clean cut narrative Marvel has accomplished. Even with the post credit scene of an armless Bucky aka the “white wolf” draped in traditional garb and soaking in the natural scenery.
Director Ryan Coogler did his job. Well. Black Panther, as much as it feels new and still part of the fabric of the Marvel-verse, it still feels like a film that could fit in the narrative arc of a traditional trilogy if needs be. Unlike the run-on sentences that is Guardians of The Galaxy “trilogy” and the likes. Marvel may have had a winning formulaic approach to creating blockbusters, but with Black Panther, the blueprint to a more complex villain has been achieved. The details in research and using real-world culture to inform the aesthetic elements of Black Panther’s suit and Wakanda also needs to be celebrated. Definitely Oscar-worthy if Suicide Squad got a mention for costume and make-up.
It would be interesting to know if the current success of Black Panther will spur on any re-writes to current Marvel film productions to produce more engaging, non-cookie-cutter villains. And with all that said, Marvel outdid herself this time around. Hopefully, this will be a trending effort leading into the next decade at Marvel Studios. A true beacon that goes a long way to bring true representation to Hollywood film.