This piece discusses the plot of “Black Panther” in detail.
Does a spaceship look different if the person who sees it is gazing up from a makeshift basketball court in Oakland, the cab of a salvage truck from Queens or the helipad at the apex of a Manhattan skyscraper? Does a spaceship’s sudden appearance from the sky mean something different depending on who is at the controls?
These are just a few of the big questions that “Black Panther,” the latest installment in the Marvel franchise, directed by Ryan Coogler, poses to viewers. Is the best way for a country to preserve its culture and maintain its autonomy extreme isolationism, cultural hegemony or empire? What costs might a nation incur if it failed to share its resources and technological innovations with people who needed them? Can a leader simply assert moral authority after centuries of deliberate inaction by his predecessors? What do the leaders of a wealthy, powerful, hugely technologically advanced African nation owe to their much more vulnerable neighbors and to the members of the extended African diaspora?
It’s incredibly exciting to see “Black Panther” prove that writers and directors can advance bold propositions and ask audiences to seriously consider major foreign policy quandaries and fractious intellectual histories without sacrificing a dollar of box-office revenue. But it’s precisely because “Black Panther” is so ambitious that the movie is a useful opportunity to explore what kind of political arguments huge blockbuster franchises still can’t advance. Just because Coogler and “Black Panther” have advanced our sense of the known boundaries of what a giant company such as Disney and the moviegoing market will tolerate and even embrace, and what a superhero movie can do and say, doesn’t mean those boundaries don’t exist.
“Black Panther” feels more politically specific and searching than almost any other recent franchise movie I can think of. Some Marvel movies, including “Captain America: Civil War,” which introduced T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as both the fictional nation of Wakanda’s superheroic protector and its future king, have taken issues like state monopoly on use of force as their subjects. But far too often, as was the case with the most recent “Star Wars” movie, “The Last Jedi,” blockbuster franchises keep hitting the reset buttons on their premises to avoid tangling in thorny political issues, such as how a rebel movement turns itself into a government. In our current blockbuster age, the conventional wisdom suggests that it’s best for crowd-pleasing movies to sanitize away any hint of political controversy to avoid turning off potential viewers.
“Black Panther,” by contrast, is a deliberate intervention in long-running debates about the best way to achieve black liberation. Its characters represent different parts of that tradition, and as is the case in the best movies about politics, they all have valid points to make, and areas where their arguments or attempts to implement their vision break down.
T’Challa’s father T’Chaka (John Kani) never quite answers the question his young son asks him in the preface to “Black Panther” about why Wakanda — whose early leaders deliberately concealed its existence, its richness in the metal vibranium, and its increasing technological supremacy to avoid invasion — continues to hide itself from the outside world even after the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism have passed. The idea that there was a point at which that secrecy made sense has some merit in T’Chaka’s telling, even if the lengths he goes to preserve that secrecy do not. T’Chaka’s decision to kill his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), whose experiences in Oakland, Calif., had radicalized him and convinced him that Wakandans needed to help the outside world, and to abandon his nephew, who grows up to be Erik Killmonger (Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan), rather than taking the boy back to Wakanda, is the original sin of “Black Panther.”
Killmonger is entirely justified in feeling rage and pain over being orphaned and ignored. And politically, Killmonger is correct that Wakanda’s refusal to intervene even as black people around the world were being enslaved, colonized and having their resources stolen from them is a self-protective choice that came at a terrible price for those Wakanda could have helped. But Killmonger also can’t imagine a vision of liberation that doesn’t replicate the colonialism he hopes to avenge. His dream for Wakanda is that of previous hegemons: an empire on which the sun never sets.
And T’Challa spends much of the movie making decisions that are defensible in the short term, but at the expense of resolving the long-term strategic questions his country faces. The solution he reaches is ultimately the compromise his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), advocates: an attempt to use Wakanda’s wealth and soft power to aid diaspora communities like the one his Uncle N’Jobu was desperate to help in Oakland.
But for all “Black Panther” says a great deal that has been exceptionally hard for mainstream American movies to speak aloud, there are still ideas it can’t quite express.
“Black Panther’s” strong initial financial performance overseas has pushed back against the idea that international audiences won’t embrace movies with black leads. (The movie’s decision to set a major action sequence in Busan is an obvious, and at this point predictable, sop to the global market.)
But domestic box office remains important to blockbusters, so “Black Panther” is sometimes oddly muted when it comes to America. CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) may first appear in the movie trying to buy a vibranium artifact from the mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), but he quickly and without much discussion becomes one of the good guys. In “Black Panther,” the CIA’s many attempts to assassinate or overthrow the leaders of African countries during the Cold War either don’t lead to lingering mistrust, or part of what makes Wakanda a utopia is the idea that it would never be vulnerable to such intervention.
In “Black Panther,” Killmonger’s experience in the U.S. military and intelligence services can be presented as the reason that he’s a terrifyingly effective fighter who knows that the best time to launch a challenge for the Wakandan throne is at a time of political transition. But “Black Panther” sources his belief that Wakanda should arm diaspora communities, lead uprisings and ultimately lead a world government to the primal traumas of his father’s death and his abandonment, rather than to the doctrines he was taught in America’s service. The movie seems to walk a fine line, suggesting that the United States made Killmonger a formidable antagonist but also that the country where he grew up is not responsible for the uses to which Killmonger put the skills he gained there.
And “Black Panther” counts some of the the cost of Wakanda’s inaction without reckoning with what that indifference might mean for a Wakandan leader who wants to engage on the international stage. If Wakandan leaders could have intervened to stop or ameliorate the trans-Atlantic slave trade, prevented Belgian King Leopold’s genocidal plunder of the Congo, ended apartheid rule in South Africa or intervened to halt the Rwandan genocide and simply didn’t, why should any of its neighbors or any diasporic communities abroad trust T’Challa’s leadership and offers of help now? At moments in “Black Panther,” characters like W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) talk about the polluting influence of refugees and their problems with more grace but no less vehemence than the immigration restrictionists are ascendant in American politics today. How will T’Challa persuade Wakandan isolationists to support his new policies and engage with outsiders some of them scorn so deeply?
“Black Panther” suggests that the end to Wakandan isolationism is mostly a matter of T’Challa’s willingness to step forward. The movie allows him to ask his father, “Still we hide, Baba?” But it doesn’t engage with all the questions T’Challa will have to answer both without and within his borders after his address at the United Nations explaining what his country really is and what he intends to do with its resources. And that’s in a movie where T’Challa’s chosen policy solution is a matter of soft power, rather than a radical rearrangement of the world order.
Ultimately, “Black Panther” does what all superhero movies do: It asks us to place faith in the goodness of individuals rather than embracing revolutionary structural change. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) addresses his family’s legacy of weapons dealing not by embracing disarmament or a radically new world order, but by using his lethal technical expertise for what he perceives to be good rather than evil. Steve Rogers’s (Chris Evans) profound fundamental decency is meant to substitute for government regulation of super-powered people. No matter how hard various reboots hammer home the idea that it’s perhaps not completely healthy for a grown man to run around in a batsuit fighting a vigilante war against crime, Batman still earns our trust and distracts our attention from Gotham’s institutional decay. If a “Black Panther” movie truly faced the implications of Wakanda’s legacy and the depths of the challenges members of the African diaspora face around the world, the idea that one man could stand against that history and pain would seem laughable and pathetic, no matter how cool his suit was or how much heart-shaped herb he consumed.
The new generation of kids who look up into the Oakland sky at the end of “Black Panther” and see a spaceship compare it to a Ducati. It’s meant as praise, but it’s a reminder of the fundamental nature of the Marvel universe, and of blockbuster franchises in general. No matter how big a franchise gets, and no matter how much the success of each individual movie seems locked in, its corporate stewards still need to confine that franchise to ideas and proposed solutions that a broad audience can understand, even if that means reducing a world-shaking innovation to merely a very cool piece of automotive hardware.
Updated: This piece originally referred to an action sequence set in Seoul. It’s set in Busan. I’ve updated the post accordingly, and regret the error.