‘Black Panther’ isn’t just another superhero movie. It matters in ways that you might expect and some that you might not.
You should care about Black Panther.
This is what I’d like to say to everyone, regardless of your background, interests, or preference in cinematic adventures. Still, I understand that not every movie is for everyone. This one does feel like a safe bet, as someone who’s seen it, but there are always going to be those who don’t connect with the material for one reason or another. That said, if you permit me, I’d like to explain some of the reasons why this movie matters.
There’s the obvious context of representation. For black audiences all over the world, this is the biggest, most profound cinematic celebration of black identity, African iconography, and Afrofuturism. It’s a big win not because it’s a big-budget superhero movie populated by black faces and cultural touchstones, but because it’s representative of some of the immense talents that have been sidelined throughout history by Hollywood’s blockbuster machine. Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero with a budget, but there’s plenty about the movie itself that allows it to rise above.
And representation is important. We don’t often think about it — we, in this case, being white people — because it’s something that happens without much effort on our part. It’s the simple idea of seeing something on-screen that you identify with. I think of being 10-years-old seeing Jurassic Park in theaters. I was Tim, the nerdy little kid who probably would have been worse than electrocuted (and probably would’ve followed Dr. Sattler around instead of Dr. Grant because I was a ‘path of least resistance’ socializer as a child and she would’ve been more likely to talk to me). It was easy for me to see the world through Tim’s eyes because he was, for the most part, like me. For millions of young black kids all over the world, this weekend is a time for them to see themselves on-screen. To see an idealized, epic version of themselves that they can be proud of. They’ll dress up as Black Panther, Killmonger, and the Dora Milaje for Halloween. That might not matter as much to someone who’s grown up with superheroes like Iron Man and Wolverine, but it matters to the kids (and adults) who have not.
But there’s more to it, especially on an artistic level. Representation is great, but it doesn’t accomplish what it needs to accomplish without the end product being a high-quality film. Black Panther continues a recent streak in superhero cinema in which characters are prioritized over action beats. In this way, it’s a lot like Logan. Ryan Coogler kept the story relatively intimate, focusing on a tale of family, loyalty, and how we reckon with the mistakes of our forefathers, big and small. T’Challa’s journey isn’t one of simply becoming King, but of deciding what kind of leader he wants to be. It’s also the story about two men — T’Challa and Eric Killmonger — and the circumstances of their upbringing and how that affects their outlook on the world. In building out this dichotomy between the two men, Coogler delivers both a hero and villain whose motivations ring true to audiences. The difference is their methods. And those methods are endemic of their circumstances. T’Challa was raised in a strong royal family, surrounded by wise and honorable people in the haven of Wakanda. Eric was left to survive on the streets of Oakland, struggling until he found refuge within the military, but carrying the great burden of vengeful feelings with him throughout his entire life.
Coogler also brilliantly builds out his supporting cast. I’ll find no surprise in seeing folks come out of Black Panther this weekend heaping praise upon Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and Letitia Wright, all of whom steal scenes all over this movie. The importance of their performances isn’t just a matter of celebrating their talents as actors — their characters are pivotal to informing the man T’Challa has become. It’s great a superhero at the center of a movie this big who doesn’t have problematic relationships with women. And as much as there is a love story in the mix, the thing holding T’Challa and his beloved Nakia (Nyong’o) apart is idealism.
Which brings us to perhaps the most stunning and interesting thing about Black Panther: it is fearless in its exploration of isolationism, tribalism, and black suffering. This is a Marvel Studios movie that reckons with the idea that there’s a powerful, technologically advanced nation hiding from the world for thousands of years while Africans are being exploited, enslaved, and institutionally impoverished for generations. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a movie about a guy in a cat suit, but the film is unafraid to go there and force its characters to deal with the consequences of isolationism. It has a message about tribalism that is relevant to our political moment, as well. As part of his rise to become the King he’s meant to be, T’Challa must decide whether or not to evolve his country’s stance on whether to help the rest of the world. It raises the greater question about what those in power owe to those who are struggling and whether or not we should consider ourselves one human people. On its own, this would be a strongly resonant message. Setting the stage for Avengers: Infinity War in which humanity will come face-to-face with a celestial invader like Thanos, it fits perfectly into this moment of Marvel’s larger story.
And that’s our final bullet point about why Black Panther matters: autonomy and interconnectedness. You might think that these two things are diametrically opposed ideas. Mostly because there have been some films — inside House Marvel and elsewhere — that haven’t pulled it off. But we see more and more superhero movies that are allowed to have their autonomy and still maintain some connectedness. For Black Panther, we have yet another example of a filmmaker putting his or her distinct stamp on a world that already exists (i.e. the larger world of the MCU). Logan and The Wolverine both exist in the same world as the other X-Men films, but both have a distinct style that feels more like James Mangold films (the man adores the iconography of Westerns) than anything Bryan Singer did with his X-films. Thor Ragnarok was the most recent example, with Taika Waititi injecting vibrant color, energy, and humor into the dark and broody world of Thor.
Ryan Coogler’s work on Black Panther is a similar study in this new superhero auteur theory. You can tell as the film moves along that he cares deeply about this story and these characters. It’s also evident that he has a great deal of trust in his collaborators. And in turn, Marvel has a lot of trust in him. All of that confidence shows up on screen in Black Panther, and it makes for a uniquely fun and vital adventure.
So no, Black Panther isn’t just another superhero movie. Just as we’ve said about other recent masterworks in the genre like Logan and Thor Ragnarok, it’s special in so many ways. It’s the kind of movie that can be important to a great many people should they decide to give it a chance. Because whether you’re a young kid who is yearning to see a vision of themselves on-screen or a fan of superhero movies that refuse to pull punches, it’s all right there in Black Panther.