Black Panther, despite what you may have been told, despite what you may have seen, is not a superhero movie. And by that we mean two things. First, that it stands far apart from practically every other film in the genre generally as well as the Marvel roster of films specifically. This is no formulaic adventure romp where a hero learns about his powers and then has to fight a big thing in the sky. The Black Panther already has his powers, knows them intimately, and the thing he has to fight can’t be punched into submission but has to be painfully confronted.
Second, it is quite literally not a movie about a superhero.
So what is it? On a purely practical, movie-going level, it’s an astonishingly well-constructed story about a man who must re-examine everything he ever thought being a hero and a leader meant. It’s also a heart-stopping adventure tale with eye-popping visuals, the likes of which are shocking even by modern superhero films. It is a beautifully shot family melodrama with a uniformly excellent cast imbuing every scene and interaction with affection, fear, or anger so deep, you feel it as if you were watching your own family suffer. It’s a computer-generated spectacle with the requisite battle scenes and Big Moments to make you gasp (This film does for rhinos what the Lord of the Rings films did for elephants), except the settings for these spectacles aren’t in the skies of big American or European cities, but mostly in plains and open vistas, with blue skies and a flood of sunlight. It doesn’t look like any other superhero film ever made.
Director Ryan Coogler understood something that Patti Jenkins also did while directing Wonder Woman: In order for it to mean something other than merely “punch bad things,” a superhero story must make every blow landed mean something on a deep emotional level. When T’Challa and his nemesis Killmonger fight, they fight for glory and honor, but they also fight on behalf of their fathers, or to correct their sins; they fight from a place of deep abandonment or soul-crushing disappointment. They fight so that a particular point of view can win the struggle. They fight as the son of a king vs. the son of slaves.
And THAT’S when the film goes to places much deeper, much broader, and much more important than any other film in this genre. Our notes from the film wouldn’t make much sense to anyone looking at them, but there is one passage scribbled and underlined over and over again: “Heart, heart, so much heart.” There is so much emotion bound up in this story; so many feelings of bereavement, disappointment, and sadness as well as moments of triumph and camaraderie that will bring tears to your eyes. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film shows T’Challa talking to his dead father at the tree of his ancestors; an exchange overflowing with love and tinged with the pain of loss and regret. When the film deals with universal themes of fathers and sons, family and duty, cultural pride, and the shame of a nation, it sets itself up as an uncommonly emotional adventure story.
But the true genius of the film is that it is also about things very specific to the black and African-American experiences – and then sets them up for comparison, something very few films have ever attempted and something absolutely no adventure or superhero filmmaker would have ever dreamed to attempt before now. This is Coogler’s brilliance; the way he took a Marvel superhero, plucked it out of an ongoing juggernaut of a franchise, saw him for what he really was, and plopped him into a story dealing directly with the emotional wreckage of the African Diaspora, the shattering of black families, the loss of black identity worldwide, the question of black authenticity, the idea of a larger responsibility to the shattered tribe, the effects of centuries of colonialism, the importance of faith in black life, and most importantly, the role of black women in family life, religious life and the community; the keepers of the flame (almost literally in this case) and the last hope of any community to hold itself together. It is breathtaking in its scope and yet meticulously intimate in its emotions.
On the same level, the film is making its points visually. Much has been written about the astonishingly beautiful Afrofuturist costume design of Ruth E. Carter – and rightly so. The very look of the film is bound up in the people populating it. As much time is spent photographing the principals of the film in loving detail as is spent on the vast digital vistas portraying Wakanda and its technology and architecture. Much has been written about what a gorgeously colorful film Black Panther is – again; rightly so. It’s simply inconceivable that this film won’t sweep the various art direction and costume design awards next year during the Oscars race. But one color stands out more than any other; partly because it’s the most important color in the film and partly because there’s more of it than most films ever portray. That color is brown.
In one jaw-dropping car chase sequence through the streets of Busan, Korea (the film does little in the way of globe-trotting, preferring to spend most of its time on the African continent and in Wakanda proper), Coogler cuts repeatedly to Lupita Nyong’o’s foot, in a naked sandal, hitting the gas pedal, over and over again, until the fact of her blackness cannot be denied in the middle of this action sequence. Black bodies in contact, black bodies in the sun, in the dark, in the rain. Black bodies dancing and fighting and running. Black hands clasping, black feet running. The gleaming, shaved black heads of the Dora Milaje. Black hairstyles in all their stunning variations. The physical blackness of the characters is never not the point of Black Panther. The bodies, faces and hair of every character are as lovingly and meticulously photographed as the most wondrous scenes of spectacle and art direction.
It’s so rare to see so much black skin in such a mainstream adventure film; rarer still to see it photographed the way it is here, in all its ranges of hue and tone, each member of the cast glowing with their own shade of light. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (up for an Oscar for Mudbound, in which she shows the same extreme care and artistry in lighting black skin tones) did an amazing job of balancing the extreme spectacle of a Marvel universe film with the intimate portrayals of black families expressing affection. Lupita Nyong’o in particular has never been as beautifully photographed as she is here, getting the full “princess” treatment from the film; portraying her in a somewhat similar light to Princess Leia in the first Star Wars film; a person of extreme competence and charisma who is also so beautiful as to leave men sputtering in her wake.
Every superhero film considered to be among the best of the genre has one thing in common: a fantastic villain that the audience find themselves occasionally rooting for against their will. In Erik Killmonger, Black Panther has possibly the greatest “supervillain” ever seen onscreen; not because he’s deliciously evil and twisted a la Heath Ledger’s Joker, but because his “villainy” comes from a place of real pain and anger, and because his point of view gives voice to the millions of members of the African Diaspora and where they fit in the “family.” We cannot speak of how much this means to black audience members, nor would we be so foolish as to make the attempt. This month saw an outpouring of words from hundreds of black writers explaining and exalting this film and what its message means to them. We would urge anyone interested in this film – especially any white person – to go and read what black writers have to say about it.
We, for our parts, can only recommend it. Black Panther is a masterpiece in every sense of the word; a meticulously and beautifully constructed story, populated by characters full of heart whom you’ll care about almost instantly, dealing with universal themes while at the same time making very specific points about black history and black identity. And quite smartly, it’s a film that stands entirely on its own, with any connections to the larger Marvel cinematic universe to be ,made only in passing. Anyone could go see this film cold and be perfectly up to speed in the first ten minutes.
As we said, we wouldn’t dream of trying to articulate what this film means to black audience members, but one thing struck us about the power of this film, and it’s bound up entirely in the genre and the studio who made it: Like Wonder Woman, this is a superhero film that has tremendous meaning to the largely ignored (among superhero films) audience it is meant to appeal to, but it also has an immeasurable effect on the people outside that audience. Wonder Woman didn’t just show young girls that they could be heroes, it showed young boys that girls could be heroes. The importance of Black Panther to black audience members is so great that it has spurred on a true cultural moment surrounding black identity, the likes of which may not have been seen since Roots aired in 1977 and shocked the shit out of middle America. But off to the side, quietly, the effect this film may have on white audience members is working its way through, teaching them – us – about the nuances of black identity, the richness of African cultures, and the unquestionable heroism of people who don’t necessarily look like the definition of “hero” up until this point. A change is gonna come, but make no mistake, with Black Panther, that change is already here.
Check out our TELEVISION & FILM forum for more discussions about all your favorite and upcoming movies and TV shows.