‘Black Panther’ is Just Another Superhero Movie
For whatever reason, both social justice warriors and black activists--or is it blacktivist now?--have gotten really out over their skis on turning Black Panther into some kind of game-changing cultural phenomenon. Pre-release hyperbolic rumors have danced anywhere from this film being the most significant historical piece of cinema ever, to this is somehow a worldwide sensation breaking down all kinds of invisible barriers, to this is a visual "Afrofuturist" representation of how Africa should really look like today if it weren't for those no-good evil white colonists. Never mind that much of the African slave trade and Atlantic slave trade were actually carried out by Africans themselves, or that Wakanda is a fictional land that conveniently benefited from a magical meteorite that happened to have crashed there. No, this movie is evidently going to change everything. Be prepared to be "woke" like you have never been woken before.
But it's more than just the #woke crowd on social media that are responsible for trying to conjure up more meaning in Black Panther outside the scope of what should be nothing more than another routine comic book movie. A good number of movie critics have really outdone themselves in romanticizing the hell out of this film. Here are just a couple choice review headlines and critic quotes that came out prior to its February release:
- Black Panther Is More Than a Superhero Movie
- ‘Black Panther’ is so much more than another superhero movie
- Claws for celebration: ‘Black Panther’ is more than just a superhero movie.
- 'Black Panther' Matters: ‘Black Panther’ isn’t just another superhero movie. It matters in ways that you might expect and some that you might not.
- "Looking, sounding and feeling the way it does-wearing its anti-corporate, anti-fascist, anti-racist heart on its sleeve-it's a movie that, for sure, knows what's up."
- Review: Black superheroes matter in 'Black Panther'
- ‘Black Panther’ Is the Best Film Some of Us Will Ever See
- The Revolutionary Power Of Black Panther
- "Surprising at every turn, Marvel’s new spinoff throws shade at the white-bread business of blockbustering."
- Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’: A Dazzling, Superpowered Love Letter to Black People
- “'Black Panther' matters."
- “Black Panther” is a film about history . . . that makes history
- 'Black Panther' delivers a cultural narrative audiences want (and need)
- ‘Black Panther’: One of Marvel’s best movie superheroes comes out of Africa
- Exploring power and privilege: why Black Panther is a hero for our time
- The Liberating Visions of Black Panther
- Black Panther review – Marvel's thrilling vision of the afrofuture
- "You might not be able to find Wakanda on a map, but this is the first Marvel movie that feels like it takes place in the real world."
- Review: Ferocious, fun ‘Black Panther’ is one woke superhero movie
- Movie review: Forget 'Marvel' or 'superhero' qualifiers. 'Black Panther' is bound to be one of the best movies of 2018
- "Now on its 18th film, Marvel Studios greenlights a movie that feels quite unlike the other Avengers one-offs, featuring a superhero with purpose."
So, does this movie live up to the amount of unbelievable hype? Is it truly the first "masterpiece" superhero movie? Is it actually more than a superhero film?
I'm sorry, folks, but Marvel's Black Panther is just another superhero popcorn flick. In fact, it fits nearly the same cookie-cutter mold that has made the Marvel cinematic universe so successful to date. It is grounded in likable characters, loaded with dazzling CGI effects, it has some really decent action scenes, it's peppered with some funny one-liners, and it has the ability to deliver its audience a suspension of disbelief for a couple hours in the theater. It also seemingly comes with the same superhero cliches and a lack of tragic consequences which makes these movies somewhat forgettable too.
I'm not going to bore you with the actual plot summary, the actors, or any of the creators of this film--see any of the reviews above for a plentiful selection of gushing praise--but just know that most of the drama that surrounded this film was completely unjustified. There is nothing culturally or politically controversial or groundbreaking in this film. I believe this is another case of people seeing what they want to see in an otherwise rather tepid film. There is nothing that really screamed at me that this film was in any way culturally significant. It is pure fictional sci-fi fantasy somewhat rooted in mild modern themes. Let's not overstep the authenticity of what this movie is really about.
Now, that's not to say that there are not political elements in the story. For instance, most of the story takes place in the fictional country of Wakanda. It's a closed-off kingdom of different tribes--for whatever reason--that has become incredibly advanced because a meteorite of fictional "vibranium" has been mined for generations and which somehow magically led to incredible leaps in technology innovation. I'm not sure what this particularly says about the people of Wakanda though. It is never explained whether the meteorite's properties somehow have given its citizens superior intelligence, as it apparently contaminated a herb that gives Black Panther his super powers, or if they just so happen to be just a naturally gifted people. But the significance of Wakanda being somehow superior in technology aside, they are also a very nationalistic, isolated country. They even have somehow visually hidden their great advanced civilization with some kind of cloaking shield to make them blend in with the rest of the surrounding shithole countries in Africa, which they apparently are not interested in aiding either; they leave that job to America and the United Nations--but I repeat myself.
But this isolated nationalism all plays into the subplot of the film in which Black Panther subsequently pays for the sins of his father and forefathers who have cut off their great wealth, resources, and innovation from the rest of the world. The movie even ends with a speech by King T'Challa (Black Panther's true persona) in front of what appears to be some international council. He talks about building bridges instead of barriers and how the world is all one single tribe. This of course is reverse-nationalism, and perhaps could be a subtle knock at Trump in a way. Personally, politically speaking, I'm by no means a nationalist, because I believe localized communities are far more important than international or even national unity. But if by bringing Wakanda "out of the shadows," T'Challa means by opening up trade with the rest of the world, this is a good thing because that ultimately is what advances progress for all nations, both poor and rich. But I have a feeling this reversal of the Wakandan nation's policy of isolationism was more of a critique of closed borders and nationalism--much to the chagrin of black identitarians who were undoubtedly excited about this movie. It becomes even more apparent at the end of the film when T'Challa starts buying up real estate property in an American ghetto presumably to gentrify it in some capacity. But let's put it this way, if Wakanda was a white ethno-centric nation instead, I believe we would have seen far less praise for this film, and we would be having a completely different discussion about how "revolutionary" it is.
Also, when it comes to political themes we cannot leave out the antagonist. Eric "Killmonger", played by Michael B. Jordan, is essentially a Black Lives Matter activist on steroids. Without getting into spoiler territory, Killmonger has very personal motivations as well as political ambitions to why he wants to square off with Black Panther and conquer the kingdom of Wakanda. Essentially, his sinister aspiration is the linchpin behind Black Panther's change of foreign policy in the end of the film, but the character truly has bought into the radical belief in oppressive European colonization. He seeks to reverse this oppression by seizing control of Wakanda and then sending its advanced weaponry to other resistance fighters across the globe to systematically "start over" everything. His plan: "I'MA BURN IT ALL!"
It's a pretty flimsy movie premise, but ultimately Killmonger is a modern take of the extremist elements of the Black Panther Party which was so prevalent during the New Left radicalism of the 1960's. But even some of the other Wakandans seem to believe in this theory as well. T'Challa's sister--one of the standout characters in my opinion--calls Martin Freeman's throwaway character a "colonizer" out of nowhere. It felt very odd and out of place. And to showcase the political acceptance of Killmonger's moral aspirations, many "woke" viewers are actually siding with the character in a "Killmonger wasn't wrong" trend on social media.
But other than that, the movie is your run-of-the-mill superhero story. There was nothing avant-garde or culturally shifting in this movie whatsoever. I believe the cast and director did a fantastic job all around. It had its funny quips a couple of times, but compared to Thor: Ragnarock it had a much more grave tone throughout. The action scenes were a bit underwhelming for a big CGI superhero film but it still managed to keep the movie exciting and the long run-time less noticeable. And I understand the music and score are great too, even though I didn't really pay much notice.
But one thing is for sure, Black Panther is not revolutionary. It was not even overly political--even The Dark Knight Rises was far more political in my opinion. I believe people got caught up in the panacea of black empowerment or perhaps the Afrocentricity of the entire film under a deteriorating sociopolitical climate over the last decade. And if you ask me, this film tried harder to capture a fictional version of Africa than it tried capture the essence of being black in America. Killmonger did not even feel American, despite playing a resentful angry black American abandoned by his home country. Some of it even seemed a bit hokey and out of place in order to grasp a feel for traditional African cultural heritage. For example, why would such a technologically advanced people still overwhelmingly dress like poor subsistence farmers? Sure, T'Challa and his female entourage modernize at times with some very snazzy culturally themed modern formal wear; but life in Wakanda seems to be stuck in time despite having such amazing breakthroughs which certainly must affect its citizens lives profoundly. To illustrate this, at one absurd moment in the film, one Wakandan tribe actually use their blanket garments as holographic shields in battle. Why bother? Just carry a regular holographic shield if you have that technological capability. There's no reason to tie it to your outfit.
But don't get me wrong, Black Panther is a good, fun superhero flick. Children will enjoy it and despite what the social justice crowd will attest, non-black children should want to be Black Panther too, if they so choose. He's a good heroic, principled role model for any kid to emulate; just like most superheroes. In the end, that's all Black Panther is: a superhero; just like all the numerous other black superheroes in the Marvel universe. There is nothing even unique about him as a character that should put him on a pedestal compared to the rest of the Marvel heroes.
In fact, this is not even the first film about an African prince who fights crime in his spare time. Eddie Murphy put out, in my opinion, a superior and well-remembered film two decades ago that I believe will still be quoted more often than Black Panther for years to come.