Let's start here: Black Panther isn't a particularly good movie. It's a very powerful movie. It's a very important movie. But it isn't a very good movie.
The obvious reference here is of course Wonder Woman. I've followed the "controversy" online, after the Oscar nominees were announced, and thought the same thing: WW wasn't a good movie. It was an important one.
That's an important distinction. And this, I believe, is an important conversation.
I'm white and I'm European
That's two layers of Black Panther that goes out the window right off the bat. Not completely, because I can understand it intellectually (or I wouldn't be writing this article) - but a movie's value doesn't solely come from the intellectual understanding.
I can empathize, but that's all I can do. And I suspect there'll be many that share this sentiment. A large portion of movie goers will share my intellectual understanding of the themes and topics of Black Panther, to varying degrees, but they similarly will lack the context to truly appreciate it.
Swap Wakanda to Asgard, and you'll get what I mean
Black Panther is an entertaining movie, don't get me wrong. It's a colorful, vibrant, well-made science-fiction flick. A flawed one, though.
If we were to swap Wakanda to Asgard, taking away what makes Black Panther so powerful and important, all that is left is a flawed movie. People won't necessarily, if at all, relate to Asgard's demigods and mythical happenings. All that would be left is a Shakespearean (somewhat) royal play.
And it's a good one - breaking from the mainstream of Marvel movies, the stakes are fairly low and very intimate. Even in the Thor movies the fate of the universe - or at least the Nine Realms - hang in the balance.
Here the stakes are lower. Granted, the future of Wakanda is important for the entirety of the world, given their advantage in technology and resources. But still, at the core of it all it's "just" a matter of who's king.
Black Panther does, however, bring something to the table that no Marvel movie has been able to do with the exception of Loki: a compelling villain. Brought to life by a wonderful performance from Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger represents more an opposing agenda and differing understanding or perspective for the world, not the generic evil that movies so often resort to. And there's no throwaway CGI army of faceless monsters, either. It's brother against brother, tribe against tribe.
Most of the intimacy of the movie, when the social edge is taken away, comes from the characters and the performances. Chadwick Boseman is made to play T'Challa, and I'm thoroughly in love with Letitia Wright's Shuri - but the entire cast should be commended for their wonderful portrayals. Again, not necessarily showered in awards, because that's navigating some controversial ground which distracts from a proper appreciation of the actors' job. But recognized they should be.
Storytelling in context
Black Panther doesn't necessarily do a good job as part of the MCU either. That said, at this point I'm not going to judge it on that account, because if Marvel Studios has taught us anything is that they know what they're doing.
Still, I'm left with many questions regarding the movie's place within the MCU.
- Is Shuri (who's really underutilized for my taste, but that may be just because I loved the character so damn much) going to replace Tony Stark after Robert Downey Jr's contract expires and now that Wakanda has been opened
- Where does this fit in the timeline? Clearly it's shortly after Civil War, but where's Steve Rogers' Nomad? Last we saw Bucky he was going in cryo-freeze, and now he's up and about?
- Wakanda being what it is, at least a century ahead of the rest of the world technologically, must have deep-running consequences for the world of the MCU. There's no more S.H.I.E.L.D., and thus there's a very clear power vacuum that'll get filled one way or another.
Black Panther offer no answers, not even hints, and that's fine - it's not its function or purpose. Yet, it is an MCU movie. Is it setting up the period that comes after Infinity War and Avengers 4? Or is it "just" that, an introduction of the character?
Another issue I had with the movie is its letting go of the "comic book realism" - where Iron Man and the MCU in general took steps to create believable technology, and where Thor was able to shift its devices onto the magical side... Black Panther does nothing to explain its technology beyond "it's vibranium".
I wonder if this will be the new direction for the MCU (after all, we're navigating the territories of literal magic in Doctor Strange, mythological magic in Thor, and sci-fi tropes left unexplained in Guardians of the Galaxy) or will they come back? Wakanda lends itself to both, and while personally I lean toward the "realism" of Iron Man, it'll be interesting to see what Marvel Studios think.
One last thing about the storytelling devices of Black Panther: personally I would've framed it within the context of T'Challa's press conference that we see at the end. And I would've, in some form, used Ross' narration that was in the trailer:
I have seen gods fly. I have seen men build weapons that I couldn't even imagine. I've seen aliens drop from the sky. But I have never seen anything like this.
It'd have been awesome for the movie to be structured around answering Ross' question to T'Challa: "What else are you hiding?"
Race, gender, and the subtlety of Black Panther
When I went to see Black Panther last night, I fully expected for the majority of the movie to get lost on me. I'm saddened by it, of course, but I'm not jealous or bitter about it either.
I do find it fascinating, though. Because what Black Panther does so expertly is expressing its themes through subtlety.
"Buy the premise buy the bit."
I'm not a fan of overt themes and obvious "hidden messages" in any form or shape. I do think that art is at its best when it's subtle, a conversation between text and the reader (using those words liberally here, it can be a movie or a painting or music or whatever else). Art doesn't have to shove its purpose down my throat. In fact, I find it insulting when it does.
With Wonder Woman I felt a bit of disappointment in its overt portrayal at times. Black Panther does a much better job at advancing the depiction of strong women just by having them there without questioning their power. The same way Firefly did so.
It may also be a good idea, in my opinion, if artists in general operated this way. The way I see it, much of the angst against portrayal of racial, gender, or sexual issues comes from the fact that art pushes its perspective into our faces. Those who are aware of them don't need this kind of behavior, and those who aren't may shy away from them.
Black Panther's Dora Milaje are nothing but strong women, and the movie doesn't, not even for a second, questions their power or place. It doesn't celebrate strong women, and this way it does more to celebrate them.
The same goes for race: Wakandans aren't stronger or better because they're black. Again, swap Wakanda to Asgard and everything still works. This kind of subtlety could do more to help narrow the racial divide than anything.
Or could it?
There's no good answer for race. (Or gender. Or sexual orientation.)
This is something that have been on my mind a lot lately.
Is it better to ignore the racial divide in order to establish equality, or is it better to point awareness to it (which, in turn, deepens it)?
There's no right answer for this. If it's the former, justice isn't really served. If it's the latter, no real progress is being made. And we can substitute any social division in place of race, the problem remains the same.
Black Panther is an important movie for people of color, but I think it does more by not being about people of color.
I will never, ever, appreciate Black Panther
All of this, of course, comes from an intellectual understanding of the movie. Emotionally? I'm drawing a blank.
I was sitting in a row with university students from African countries. And the contrast, the difference in our perspective of the movie was... almost physical.
It reminded me of the story I heard about the only Western journalist who went to see a Bruce Lee movie in Hong Kong. The details of that story escape me, but nonetheless the parallel was obvious. (If much less physically expressed.)
I'm a white European guy, and therefore lacking the cultural context for fully understanding Black Panther's impact and importance. I appreciate it as much as I'm able to, and I'm endlessly fascinated by the conversations that spring from both that disconnect and the different ways the same issues can be explored.
I prefer the way Black Panther did it, though.
Cover image credit: Marvel