'Black Panther' and the Tragedy of Gatekeeping

On the eve of Thanos' arrival, Marvel delivers its richest and most relatable text.

Black Panther Killmonger

After a lifetime absorbing sci-fi fairy tales regarding the land of his birth, a child witnesses a U.F.O. hovering above his apartment complex before charging upstairs and discovering his father’s leaking corpse on the living room floor. Imagine his life from that moment forward, forced to shape his reality on the streets of Oakland; a reality that has already robbed him of the only love he knew. He fought for every scrap of food. Biding time until the military would accept him into their ranks, and train him into the necessary killing machine he required of himself to deliver vengeance upon the murderers who set him on this path.

In any other comic book movie universe, the origin of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens would lead to a franchise of never-ending sequels. The familial pain at his core is one shared by Batman, Superman, The Flash, Daredevil, and The Punisher. Not to mention the cinematic champions of revenge we gladly cheer on in everything from The Virgin Spring to Death Wish to Kill Bill. We’re a civilized land of non-violence until someone threatens our family. Go against me and mine? Hang ‘em high.

Black Panther introduces its “villain” by placing him in league with Ulysses Klaue, the South African gunrunner we last saw wheeling and dealing with a killer robot in Age of Ultron. Together they free the London Museum of Art from a prized Wakandan artifact. The precious metal means big money for Klaue, but the royal attention surrounding its sale is all that concerns Killmonger. He’s placing himself on the board of a chess game the Wakandans didn’t even know they were playing.

T'challa

We first meet our “hero” in Captain America: Civil War. While The Avengers are busy tearing themselves apart, T’Challa is observing the bottomless rage stoked by Zemo’s justifiable retribution. At the end of that film, Black Panther and Zemo look down on a warring Captain America and Iron Man. T’Challa specifically states, “Vengeance has consumed you. It’s consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” He lets go of the hate birthed from his father’s death. Lessons learned, moving on.

Ha!

Barely a week has passed from that film to this one, and T’Challa must not only confront another valid mission of revenge but one that reveals his dead father as a terrified man of sin. Forget any emotional growth experienced judging Cap and Iron Man. Black Panther’s entire worldview is about to come crashing down around him.

Killmonger

Wakanda is a technological paradise hidden from the eyes of the world. Their limitless access to the cure-all metal, Vibranium, allowed them to raise borders against colonizers, preventing a Western influence on their culture, and enabling an unprecedented celebration of their Africanness. The Wakandan people grew free from tyranny, and the audience’s witness of their Afrofuturism possibility underscores the grotesque realities of imperialism. Basking in the stunning production design of Hannah Beachler or the tribal authenticity of Ruth E. Carter’s costumes is a revelatory eruption of cinematic history. We have simply never seen anything like Black Panther on screen before, and we understand why a Wakandan would cherish such an environment so rigorously.

Wakanda’s unconquerable status made isolation their most treasured attribute. Severed off from the world, Wakandans only have nationalism to pride themselves. What the rest of the planet worries about is laughable and beneath them. They send their War Dogs to spy on global endeavors, and that’s as trusted a relationship as their willingness to endure. Anything more will be met with conflict, or straight up murder.

Why? To question such quarantine is to peel the first chink from a precious, but precarious piece of armor. The “why” is a deadly word uttered from the lips of that child trapped in the realities of the United States while contemplating his father’s bedtime stories. Why should we, or others, suffer when Wakandans have the means to relieve our misery? Why would Wakanda hide when they are so needed?

T'challa Vs Killmonger

T’Challa cherishes tradition. He’s a warrior who never gets tired of the wonder of Wakanda. After the slightest protest from the Jabari tribe, T’Challa ascends the throne with ease and confidence in his rule. He may be sad about the passing of his father, but his access to the ancestral plane means that dad is always within reach. He doesn’t understand Nakia’s compulsion to medal in worldly affairs, nor his sister’s desire to upgrade technology that is not broken. The old ways are good, so he might as well rock the traditional sandals on his first day in office.

Killmonger butchered his way into recognition, scarring the lives he stole upon his flesh, the tattoos signifying a righteous purpose. Using the corpse of Klaue as his key into the Wakandan throne room, he summons every ounce of his being into a scream of existence. The abandoned son of N’Jobu lives! The lives you ignore beyond your borders deserve your attention.

The ritual combat between T’Challa and Killmonger had only one outcome. It’s the Rocky III scenario. The champ is complacent while the opponent has spent all waking thought consumed towards victory. Not to mention that Killmonger’s appearance solidifies the fear fueling the Wakandan Empire. A fear every king before T’Challa has been willing to kill to maintain. A fear T’Challa didn’t recognize in himself until he was confronted by it. The outside world exists, and they want in.

The King Of The Dead

Tossed from the waterfall duel, with his kingdom ripped away, T’Challa awakens in the ancestral plane to confront the fearful head-on. His father’s rule had an acceptable body count, and those he slew were done so in the name of the nation. He warned his son “it is hard for a good man to be king.” Every mournful look he offers T’Challa translates into “I told you so,” and the son can’t bear the atrocity beneath his feet. T’Challa shares a taste of Killmonger’s disgust, and the horror sours his soul.

The poison has taken hold. There is no turning back for Killmonger. Finally, inside Wakanda, he will transform the country’s might into his sword. The rage that brought him to this point is now aimed at all oppressors, or those deemed to be such. T’Challa cannot let such hate sit where he once did. Comic book action violence is required.

Cousins clash and two Black Panthers claw at each other while their subjects war around them. The heart of Wakanda bleeds at their feet, and T’Challa dares to mend while Killmonger can’t even see the festering wound he’s struggling to control. T’Challa is the first to land the killing stroke, and has the gall to postulate, “Maybe we can still heal you?” Killmonger responds with another “Why?” He has been a prisoner since birth and knows it’s better to die free of chains than accept a cage of bars.

Wakanda At War

From one Civil War to another. Killmonger has potentially split the Wakandans irrevocably. The climactic skirmish on the fringes of the Golden City is just a glimpse of the turmoil on the horizon. Never mind Thanos floating above, if T’Challa thinks opening an outreach program and addressing the United Nations is all it takes to tear down the walls that divide us he has another harsh reality ready to explode in his face.

As triumphant an experience as Black Panther is, the overwhelming sense of remorse that washes over the audience during Killmonger’s final moments is punishing. I have hope for T’Challa’s new national initiative, but I dread the inevitable growing pains. Can his people overcome a century’s worth of gatekeeping? Opening their borders invites the wrath of billions lost to diseases easily curable by Wakandan technology. The citizens will be swarmed with the downtrodden seeking refuge.

The catastrophe leveled on T’Challa in this film surely provides plenty of distraction for the new King, as well as the people adjusting to his radical global point of view. It would be safer for them to hide, to use their technology once again, and pull away from the rest of the world. They have so many reasons why. But it’s time to ask why not?

The Dora Milaje

What Black Panther Contributes to the MCU:

  • The Dora Milaje – Sworn to protect the king, these all-female warriors are unlike any other fighting force in the MCU. As General Okoye proves during multiple occurrences, the Dora shed personal feelings in service to the throne. Friends and lovers better not stand in the way of Wakanda.
  • Okoye – Cinema gifted us an extraordinary new badass in Danai Gurira. Her character charges into battle with ferocity and confidence. Okoye exhibits mostly disgust for non-Wakandans and their primitive technology. As someone who was raised exclusively to protect the gates of the Golden City, she will have one of the toughest times adjusting to T’Challa’s new direction. Of course, seeing her beloved W’Kabi twisted by Killmonger’s rage is a massive education.
  • Nakia – T’Challa’s ex is the first to show him the possibilities of outreach. Her belief that the greatest country in the world could also serve as its greatest protector initially reads as naive to the king. Not until the tragedy of Killmonger does he even consider her ideas as valid. Her grace is the spark that ignites what could be the most drastic change in the MCU since “Hail Hydra.” What does the Marvel Universe look like once Wakanda starts to share its knowledge?
  • Shuri – Another scene-stealer. Letitia Wright gets to play Q to T’Challa’s James Bond. She’s got the necessary hardware to get any job done, always happy to improve the unimprovable.
  • M’Baku – The leader of the Jabari Tribe, self-exiled to the mountains surrounding Wakanda. Not quite a pal, not quite an enemy. He is a fine ally when Killmongers and Thanoses come knocking at the palace gates.

Klaue

What Black Panther Withholds from the MCU:

  • Ulysses Klaue – Doesn’t look like Andy Serkis will be popping up in any further MCU titles. After suffering amputation in Age of Ultron, Klaue has some fun with his new sonic arm cannon. He’s the pure scumbag villain of the piece. Motivated exclusively by greed and hatred. What I appreciate about Serkis is how intimidating he can make his tiny body seem. Scream-singing at Martin Freeman, few Marvel bad guys have felt so unhinged.
  • 1992 King T’Chaka – Here’s another guy I’d love to see pop up in a prequel. Sure, he’s quick to kill a sibling, but his costume is rad. I’m sure he got up to all kinds of questionable shenanigans in the spirit of patriotism. Can you imagine a partnership with a young Nick Fury? That’s a Machiavellian pair to keep you up at night.
  • Zuri – A.K.A. Uncle James. He’s the mole who infiltrated N’Jobu’s American operation and ratted him out to King T’Chaka. The keeper of the Necropolis made the glory of Bast his mission, burying his shame in the religion of the Black Panther.

Panther's Rage

Further Reading:

The Black Panther: Panther’s Rage by Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, and Billy Graham – Click HERE if you want the details on my five favorite Black Panther comic books. T’Challa doesn’t get much better than those titles, but if you’re looking for some extra credit, I’d suggest this historic saga. Originally collected in the pages of Jungle Action, this serial adventure was the first Black Panther comic book to truly embrace social issues. McGregor carefully expanded the mythology of Wakanda throughout his run, but eventually brought T’Challa to the American south to challenge the violent hatred of the KKK. While it certainly doesn’t read like a modern comic book, the stories are instilled with a sense of empathy and are more concerned with the thoughts of its title character than the punches he throws.

The Ancestral Plane

Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

PHASE ONE

PHASE TWO

PHASE THREE

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.