Black Panther, Ryan Coogler, 2018
Formative in many a hero’s mythology is his reckoning with the act of killing. Will he, in the service of his good, countenance taking life – any life? Superhero stories have long taken this issue as a point of defining thematic principle and long done nothing especially interesting with it: ‘go to jail’ being the typical, evasive resolution – practically a deus ex machina of realism jarring against the fantastical superlogic around it, the prison system suddenly rearing its head as something supposedly commensurate with the hero and film’s vaunted moral code.
Our titular Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa – newly crowned king of secret, highly-advanced African state Wakanda – draws a line in the sand early: refusing to kill a challenger to his throne (Winston Duke’s rival tribe leader M’Baku – perhaps the highlight of an excellent crop of supporting characters) even though the laws of ritual combat would suggest it. Michael B. Jordan’s ex black-ops antagonist, on the other hand, is absolutely besotted with the whole enterprise, scarring himself for each scalp (running near enough out of skin in the process) and adopting the moniker Erik Killmonger.
Sharpening this yin and yang is a familial link: T’Challa and Erik, as it turns out, are cousins – Erik the son of T’Challa’s uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), a Wakandan spy deployed to the US in the 80s. Witnessing first hand the fate of his people – the poverty, the racism – beyond their native shores, N’Jobu is soon ready to take up arms, disillusioned with the passivity of Wakanda. It is T’Challa’s father T’Chaka (John Kani) who eventually rumbles him, who comes to detain him, who in the ensuing scuffle kills him, and who, ultimately, leaves Erik – not more than seven – alone and fatherless in 1992 Oakland, CA.
Stark here is the difference in outcome between N’Jobu and T’Chaka’s sons: the vengeance bred in Erik on discovering his father’s body only compounded by the experience of being orphaned, poor and black in America. T’Challa, utopian Wakanda’s heir apparent, grows into a life of what looks by comparison incredible privilege – but represents simply the fate of a people not wrested from their home by the brutality of slavery.
Who, indeed, can claim to have the more valid perspective on the justification of violence? It’s a discourse that brings to mind that between the Rev. King and Malcolm X, and one that in Black Panther frames the Shakespearean drama as a broader, irreconcilable tension in the soul of the African diaspora.
It’s one that extends to state level, too: Wakanda is itself against any forceful liberation of the world’s oppressed, yet forever uneasy in the position given its immeasurable wealth and impossibly advanced technology – this owing to an enormous supply of vibranium, a dexterously powerful alien metal under its hills (a utopia-built-on-resources concept recalling our own world’s oil-rich Scandinavian arcadias).
Many of those in Wakanda’s leadership advocating for greater action have the sound of traditionally Western neocolonial arguments for war – the justifications we all heard for militarism in Iraq, Libya, Syria. Except there’s a key difference in the departure point. Here the political default is not the banner of ‘humanitarianism’ and the presumed immorality of inaction, but the dharmic, non-interventionist ‘way’ of Wakanda. This, in Anglo-American parlance, would be condemned in a definition: “isolationism” – but it’s a more complex philosophy in Black Panther, one that for some characters (granted) stems from fear and conservatism, but for others from principle, wisdom, heritage.
It was, in fact, in working for the CIA on strategic, “regime change” assassination missions that Killmonger found the perfect proving ground for his skill and rage, a detail that casts him – much like Javier Bardem’s villain Raoul Silva in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall – as a very purposely positioned piece of fallout: fractured collateral from the supposed greater good of realist policymaking.
One of the contradictions of films with such anti-violence subtexts is that for the large part it’s precisely violence that we’re gleefully consuming as spectacle. Black Panther doesn’t escape this trap, but it’s harder to see this as hypocrisy than a tussle between Coogler’s own sense of the picture’s essence and the inexorable Disney/Marvel franchise apparatus. Quite where or how the film was compromised, I’m not able to surmise, but – sure enough – any time Black Panther feels compelled to remind us that it’s a superhero movie, we veer back into the familiar modern territory of weightless, flash-cut CGI.
Critics contend near unanimously that Black Panther is a visually stunning piece of cinema. I’d go as far as to say that the visuals are instead Black Panther’s weakest element. The obligatory blockbuster set pieces are airy, jaggedly edited, frequently underlit and operate on that uncanny plane of inconsequential video-game physic that skewers credulity. What is it these critics are referring to, exactly? The costumes? These, I will note, are without exception wonderful. But you would hope Ruth E. Carter would be getting a few more name checks if this adulation were intended solely for her. Admittedly the production design has its moments – particularly when touring the more sidelined tribes of Wakanda, the Jabari’s snow-capped home a magnificent network of mountain platforms, ornamented by white, bark-stripped logs, hung up like suspended spears – although the much celebrated ‘world building’ has been overhyped (we see urban Wakanda at street level twice in the film – the only glimpse of day-to-day life – and disappointingly it’s the same set, perspective, and crane-dip shot each time).
The most significant problem, however, over and above any qualms with technical execution, is that the action lacks any discernible identity. This is the principal draw of superhero films – the way in which the unique abilities of the hero characterize and give meaning to its peculiar visual kinetic (Sam Raimi’s splendid, pre Marvel-machine Spider-Man 2 being for this writer’s coin the gold standard, though the particularity of the pleasure traces more clearly back to the “you’ll believe a man can fly!” tagline of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman).
Black Panther, for all the depth of conscience it affords its lead (and Boseman, so brilliantly expressive in his posturing, in a tilt of the chin or eyebrow, may be the most interesting actor to yet play a superhero) bestows upon him no physical traits of any distinction. A slightly more-than-human faculty for strength and agility seems about it – some gadgety gimmicks tacked onto his suit by Wakanda tech guru and kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, effervescent) are deployed fairly sparingly, and filmed without much conviction.
For that reason, while Black Panther might be the most interesting, worthwhile and intelligent superhero movie of its era, it isn’t necessarily an especially good one. Whether or not that’s a problem depends on how closely you focus on the non-superhero film – the T’Challa / Killmonger parable – just barely concealed beneath its surface.
It’s in this strain that Black Panther delivers its truly monolithic moments, not least in its coda, following the final fight between the two cousins. T’Challa defeats Killmonger, inflicting a wound that untreated will prove fatal, but – with quick action and Wakanda’s medicine – could yet be healed. T’Challa knows this, but suddenly we realize we’re not where we expect to be: our hero is not at the completion of an arc of moral discovery, he does not understand what distinguishes him and the villain – we feel nothing but conflict and confusion in T’Challa. This is not his moment. It is Erik who is lucid, and to whom T’Challa – radically – defers the agency of the scene, the freedom to choose life or death.
Counter to the prevailing morality of its genre, life in Black Panther is not prized above all else: “so you can just lock me up?” is Erik’s wearied retort when T’Challa offers to save him. Mass incarceration is the veil behind which America perpetrates modern slavery, and – for Erik – the wisest of his ancestors were those “who jumped from ships,” knowing that “death was better than bondage.” In the history of hero myths, so obsessed with mortality, few have confronted the nature of life so starkly and truthfully as this.
Verdict: worth a look.