Black Panther shatters the stereotypical superhero movie structure. The box office smash packs in as much cultural commentary, comedy and STEM propaganda as a film can handle. Its success is revolutionary, considering that films celebrating black culture have always had to combat harmful stereotypes.
In Black Panther, three parties battle over the throne of Wakanda, as well as the allocation of the country’s advanced technology and abundant resources. King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is the reigning power — the man the audience initially believes is on the “good side.” He represents a nationalist view in which the monarch of the country is dedicated to only helping Wakandans even though they possess the resources to aid oppressed peoples overseas. The White Gorilla Cult, a tribe who lives isolated from the rest of Wakanda, rejects the monarchy’s technological advances and values Wakandan tradition. This cult is introduced as an antagonist looking to take control of the throne after the death of the previous king, T’Chaka. The film’s main antagonist, Erik Killmonger, is not established until much later.
Killmonger lacks many of the traditional villain characteristics, aside from his nickname, which refers to his long list of confirmed kills in military combat. Killmonger can be considered a representation of the Civil Rights-era Black Panther Party, whose goal was to challenge the brutality enacted against the African American community. Killmonger seeks justice for the African American community he grew up by using Wakanda’s weapons to overthrow white oppressors in America and around the globe. By casting Michael B. Jordan, a popular, attractive actor, the film defies the traditional trope of good versus evil.
The film’s representation of traditionally “good” characters revolves around pleasing costumes, toned bodies and a dedication to justice. While its villains, are portrayed in a more complex view, defying the often hideous, lethal and evil characterizations that abound within the superhero multiverse. In Black Panther, Marvel creates a complex battle between heroes who are not entirely good and villains who are not entirely evil.
Director Ryan Coogler did not have the option of making a disappointing film. To be black and considered good in America, the black film, artist, actor or musician must be far better than their white counterparts. Opening with $201.8 million in box office sales — surpassing other white-male-lead films like Iron Man and Thor — Black Panther has already proven that it can hold its own against other films in the superhero canon.
At times, Black Panther’s use of light, color, holograms, sleek cars and journeys to astral planes felt overblown. If the film’s writers put more trust into the appeal of a complex narrative and the witty, stereotype-demolishing characters like Shuri (a young, black, female tech-genius), and less in the desire to make a bright, loud two-hour fight scene, the story may have struck an even stronger chord with its audience.
Where the artistic design of the film was not taken too far was in the representation of Africa and the tribes of Wakanda. Rarely do mass audiences enjoy a movie that takes place almost entirely in Africa, and even more rarely is the Africa that we see depicted as stunningly beautiful.
Marvel deserves a standing ovation for the influence this film will have. A film where African and African American cultures are seen as strong and dazzling, where women can be warriors and scientists who are beautiful without long hair, light skin or a submissive presence. Black Panther did what it was supposed to. That is, it filled theaters across the country — including theaters in rural Ohio — with people willing to celebrate black culture ,and it filled people of color with a long-deserved sense of hope.