I think I habitually overrate Marvel movies. I mean, I’m pretty sincere when I consider them just about the most important contemporary releases. A decade seems to have been the right amount of time for these movies to mutate, a hybrid combination of pap and prestige. They are the most honest reflection of our culture and politics that is being created right now. You can feel it in the struggles, the barbs present in these films’ souls. What they see in society, what they want to be seen, and what remains conspicuously absent from their tapestries.
They are unmoored in a sense. Unable to stand on their own, because their entire existence on a catalysing and reformulation of the framework they exist within, all the art that surrounds them. It seems almost absurd now that 2008’s Iron Man began in a military transport in a Middle Eastern War, as we have progressed these films relationship with reality has become elastic. They’re dreams now, of worlds that could be, or might be, or that we hope for or fear. The cries of our collective unconscious given voice through the specificity of an artist’s lens.
Maybe because of this I should be more resistant when approaching these works. Start picking at their unquestioned assumptions. Interrogate what they really have to say. Because Spiderman: Homecoming don’t got any young queer kids in it, because worlds is as worlds must and looking back on the past few years’ slate, none of them feel as wild or as explosive as Black Panther.
Ryan Coogler understands what Wakanda means. This African country hidden for years away from imperialist eyes left to its own devices, with its own resources. It has flourished. A society built not on the backs of black bodies but atop their shoulders. A vision divorced from colonialist oppression, away from the eyes that see their culture as something lesser. And people, characters who ain’t viewed in opposition to the diminishing gaze of white supremacy but who are allowed to develop, in fiction and out, their own identities.
I can only view this as an outsider. I can consider it, rationalise it, but i ain’t never gonna be able to feel the weight of what it means. It is not built for me in that way. It quietly interrogates, through the motives of those foreign to Wakanda in the story, the way that white society is complicit in the enormities of our past. The film literally ends with a discussion of reparations and sure, it might be in a comic book fantasy way, but what a note to end on.
The film opens with T’Challa, played with this precise poise and restraint by Chadwick Boseman, being crowned king of Wakanda. Early on they get a lead on Andy Serkis’ South African international terrorist type, he’s been thieving vibranium (the wonder-metal that fuels the country’s technological advancement) and selling it to the highest bidder. He sets out; supported by Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, spy, humanitarian, his ex-girlfriend; Danai Gurira’s Okoye, leader of the tribe’s special forces and Letitia Wright’s Shuri, tech-genius and kid sister.
Would ya look at that, a Marvel movie with three women in it? And they all get stuff to do? Kidding aside, it is so great to watch a blockbuster that treats women (especially women of colour) with the seriousness that it treats its men. These are not silly characters or frivolous characters, none of them in the film are. They just all are gifted moments. Kid sister, jilted ex, exasperated bodyguard, they’re realised with a compassion that extends beyond the archetype. See how Boseman comports himself around the three, behind his perpetual chill there’s love to be found in the centre of his performance.
While these folks are out to hunt though, a more home grown threat emerges. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Basset) and statesman Zuri (Forest Whitaker) face political unease amongst a country unsure of their new leader’s suitability for the role when his cousin Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger returns from exile. So, while we are reeled in with some slick superhero hijinks along the streets and underground nightclubs of Busan the flick eventually resolves itself into Coogler’s preferred structure, the intergenerational family drama.
Like, the dude been saying in interview that this is his most personal film so far, and in a way, I can see it. It’s all about these people rubbing up against each other as they try figure out their allegiance and the right way forward. It’s all manner of political conversations that go on around all manner of tables, except that these folks run a country, the stakes are higher. All credit to Jordan, he is only other good Marvel Villain besides Tom Hiddleston, it’s in the way he moves all wound and brash, flickering with tension. You cannot keep your eyes off him.
Which wouldn’t mean too much if Coogler, along with co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole didn’t invest him with an actual point of view, an actual humanity. To continue that familial theme, both our hero and our villain get the opportunity to confront the memories of their fathers for their failure. When Erik gets the opportunity to discover why he was left on the outside of this wonder civilisation Coogler constructs the scene with all the weight of a lost childhood, a gorgeous physicalisation of the distance one can feel from the family that let you down.
It ain’t just that sequence that is gorgeous neither. All of Wakanda is, we don’t get big budget afro-futurism on our screens. A shoutout to production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, as well as all the goddamn design team who make this glorious image of a metropolis unbound from European or American concepts of city planning and architecture. Air and space and market stalls underneath the flight paths of hovercrafts that look like fireflies or ceremonial masks. Oh, and the sexiest clothes that you ever did see, y’all will just wanna fuck everyone in this movie.
It is strange balancing the film’s identity as something outsider. It’s a Disney product after all, the signs are still there, you can feel it in the slight shagginess to the story, the sometimes wonky CGI sets. Coogler too ain’t yet a comfortable director of action, and the choice to set the climactic battle in a big empty field while an aerial battle occurs and the superhumans fight in a glowing subterranean area feels very Phantom Menace.
There is nothing structurally different here from the rest of the Marvel joints but, like I said, I sorta stan them anyway. That ain’t the point though, you can’t dismiss the difference when it’s like this, when the new lick of paint stands for redefinition, reclamation it stands strong. I hope the franchise continues in this direction. Hopefully in the next Avengers joint Cap and Bucky will finally kiss.
Black Panther is currently screening in UK cinemas.