Black Panther: Modern Mythic, Changing The Game
When one is crowned a king, he is expected to give up his personal attachments. He isn’t “just” a person anymore, he is a king. In an ideal reality, entire nations would prosper when public officials officiate the public. In the case of T’Challa, the fate of Wakanda and its vibranium now rests on his claws as the new Black Panther.
The solo film marks the 18th installment in the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). However, despite Infinity War being on the horizon, Black Panther proves the MCU is yet to be stale. Director Ryan Coogler, in fact, takes the film for a spin with quite the artistic ingenuity, resulting in quite a gripping tale, inasmuch as PG 13 films could get. In fact, one could be surprised with the kind of depth Black Panther aspired to achieve (and did so excellently) given the themes it chose to explore.
It’s no “mere” solo film, especially for those who expect the “traditional” solo film “formula.” The film isn’t just a set-up for Thanos in Infinity War. To the surprise of many, Black Panther introduces questions on making the “right move” in today’s turbulent societal dimensions. Most importantly, it asks just what power could do to make a change. Add this immeasurable weight to the responsibilities of a newly crowned T’Challa, and one is provided with a coming of age story that is less about “growing out” of childhood and dwells more on “growing into” the kind of Black Panther T’Challa wanted to be.
Before you read our What’s-A-Geek! review, you may as well enjoy a breathtaking view of the kingdom of Wakanda in this Black Panther trailer below. A word of warning, though, as the review may have minor spoilers.
Black Panther: King In Kingdom
Black Panther opens the way tales of heroes do: a legend. Whereas other superhero tales will have heroes rise up against threats to peace, Wakanda rose out of a desire to sustain peace. The Black Panther, blessed by the god Bast, united the five tribes of the nation. With the power of vibranium, Black Panthers have since then worked hard to make Wakanda the technological and cultural marvel it is today.
Like in the comics, the Black Panther is not something exclusive to a person, but rather a mantle passed on to the rulers of the nation. When one is the Black Panther, one carries Wakanda with them. In the case of T’Challa, his first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not as Black Panther the king, but Black Panther the prince.
Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa comes back home to a coronation and a revolution. A few weeks after his father’s death, circumstances will test T’Challa’s resilience and beliefs as a person, a son, and a king.
And so comes the question: what kind of ruler will T’Challa choose to be?
Coogler’s vision and particular attention to narrative gave Black Panther the unique direction it had, making an entertaining yet captivating story that will have viewers on their toes from start to finish. For the one at the helm of Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), perhaps we couldn’t expect anything less.
Black Panther‘s Wakanda is nothing short of majestic. The fictional world superpower builds upon the elusiveness of African culture in Western cinemas and reshapes stereotypes attached to the continent. Gone are “textiles, shepherds, [and] good outfits,” as Wakanda introduces lush forests with teeming wildlife in perpetual balance with vibranium-based tech, music to stun and amaze (enough to warrant its own What’s A Geek! review), and a culture of honor and fairness.
Before one undertakes the mantle of Black Panther, champions from other tribes can challenge the king-to-be in ritual combat. Whoever wins in the trial will take the mantle of king. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a challenge of his own, and he is more than willing to be a threat to T’Challa’s own vision for the nation.
But in a society where anyone can challenge a king for the throne, is Killmonger really a “threat”? Killmonger removes from viewers the idea of a traditional villain, and instead poses something to think about: If you want to change the norm, are you automatically wrong?
Stories of superheroes give the impression that heroes are “good” and villains are “bad.” Heroes have villains to overcome to prove that goodness prevails. Black Panther establishes problems in this setup with Killmonger and his progression in the story. Killmonger’s story is the story of someone using his frustration as a drive to make a change, no matter what the cost.
Killmonger reminds T’Challa that kingship is inherently flawed – that there aren’t any “good” or “bad” decisions, just decisions. Was it right for Wakanda to keep its peace in the shadows, when they can help the world? How can you save people from becoming Killmongers when you have a kingdom to lead and protect?
Strength in Numbers
A king cannot be called as such without three things: a kingdom to remind him of what he is; a cadre of advisors to remind him of what his role entailed; and a royal family to remind him that at the end of the day, he will not carry the burden alone. And T’Challa was never quite alone, not when he has quite the diverse cast of Wakanda’s finest with him.
Black Panther introduces us to quite the extended cast of characters, some arguably auxiliary, but never sidelined. Perhaps interesting to point out is the film is never ashamed to show that these people were always good at what they did. This isn’t to say they aren’t flawed. Rather, they show us people doing what they do best: their, well, best. When a duty is at hand, you accomplish it by doing it. Skill can be trained, but growth takes perseverance and trust.
The film shows that, yes, characters can’t be perfect to make a compelling story. However, you don’t necessarily have to break characters and leave them alone to find their own way to demonstrate their capacity to grow. Other coming-of-age stories always imply that we can only grow if we push ourselves enough. Rarely do you see a film where someone, most importantly someone at the top, accepts help and acknowledges how help can improve one’s character.
Black Panther shows that there is strength in numbers. Numbers not insomuch as to overwhelm, but to get a helping hand in your quest for growth isn’t a sign of weakness.
T’Challa proves that you don’t have to carry the burden of ruling alone. As T’Chaka told his son, “You’re going to struggle, so surround yourself with people you trust.”
But what if you can’t trust yourself?
Being Your Own King
T’Challa in Black Panther is a king, but far from a king he expected himself to be. Two things are apparent throughout the course of the film:
One of the truest realizations Black Panther puts in the minds of viewers is how being “good” isn’t always “right.” This is a reality that is hard to swallow, and a reality that had T’Challa doubt himself to the core ever since he stepped on the throne. Usual depictions of kings involve running a kingdom, being wise, and dying at a story’s opening act.
Relatively unseen from these depictions are pile upon pile of hard decisions that kings pray were the right ones. Black Panthers are fortunate to have access to the wisdom of previous kings before him thanks to the Heart-shaped Herb. But when T’Challa starts doubting the ideals of the kings he once believed in, how should he proceed? Can he, barely a day old on the throne, find a better way for Wakanda?
This was a hard pill to swallow, especially when you have to prove to yourself that there’s a better way. But this brings us to the second point of the film:
You cannot be who you are if your benchmark is always another person.
Leadership is hard, and much more so for T’Challa who always believed he’s in the shadow of his father’s rule. His journey throughout the film will make him realize that kings aren’t perfect. It’s making the right calls despite these flaws that make kings fit to rule. T’Challa having to accept this will be hard, as he will start to rule knowing that he, someone responsible for the lives of many, can make mistakes.
Verdict: Wakanda Forever
Black Panther is by all means a superhero flick. However, Coogler’s direction did allow Black Panther to explore a kind of depth that sets itself apart from its contemporaries. In our Thor: Ragnarok review, we state the film did a complete 180 on how Thor was portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Panther gave us a taste of what’s to come.
In the case of solo films, Black Panther was far from the veins of Thor or The First Avenger. T’Challa’s first solo foray in the big screen wasn’t just to “set up” May’s Infinity War, but rather sets up a kind of subgenre in the superhero film industry one could only describe as modern mythic.
Coogler pushes the boundaries of the superhero genre by doing one thing solo films in the genre have been trying to do for the past few years: owning it. At the core of Black Panther is its own epic, its own story, that captivates regardless of how deep the rabbit hole you want to go. The director leaves you with a choice to digest its themes of personal identity and responsibility on one hand, and anti-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, and Black Power (to name a few) on the other. Regardless of your choice, the tale leaves a mark that will stay even after you leave the cinemas.
In the end, Black Panther never did freeze. If anything, Black Panther paved way to a new kind of warmth – a kind of hope – that showed just how much potential the genre has yet to show to viewers.
Long live the king.