All hail the King
Marvel’s latest blockbuster is an imaginative overturning of received Hollywood wisdom and a multi-layered, Afrofuturistic celebration of the world’s first Black superhero
Black Panther Dir Ryan Coogler, US 2017 On UK release
It’s not often that a movie feels like a cultural event, but for all the media hype on the one hand and the inevitable nay-sayers on the other, the palpable sense of excitement around Marvels’s
Black Panther is real enough. Certainly, there have been other black screen superheroes – from the pre-MCU Blade films starring Wesley Snipes to Will Smith’s
Hancock – but with the genre’s subsequent ascent to box office dominance, the stakes, in terms of representation as well as cash, are now immeasurably higher; and this is why people are attaching so much importance to what is, to the literal-minded – whether cultural snobs, anticapitalist hand-wringers, alt-right idiots, DC fanboys or boneheaded rascists – just another big-budget crowd-pleaser from the Marvel superhero sausage-factory.
But Black Panther was always about making a point as well as making a splash: when Civil Rights conscious Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the world’s first black superhero in 1966, in issue 52 of The Fantastic
Four, they knew exactly what they were doing: even the reliably cynical Ben Grimm was impressed, at least by the African leader’s interior decorating skills (“Wow! Wotta pad!”).
T’Challa was no spear-wielding savage, noble or otherwise, from the fevered imagination of a previous age of pulp fiction, but the canny ruler of a technologically advanced African nation that had managed to stay off the radar of the colonialist West and develop in glorious isolation. He had the same kind of scientific smarts as Reed Richards or Tony Stark, but was also better looking than Sidney Poitier and proudly African to boot. Ever since he first headlined his own comics in the 1970s, Black Panther has been a political title, whether we’re talking Don McGregor putting him up against the Klan or dropping him into Apartheidera South Africa, Christopher Priest’s frequently hilarious deconstruction of ‘African’ tropes or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s explorations of governance and monarchy in the title’s latest incarnation.
Black Panther’s first solo film outing translates many of these elements – the sense of empowerment and wonder, the Afrofuturistic themes – into cinematic terms with nearcomplete success. While it was fun to witness the character’s introduction in 2016’s Captain
America: Civil War, the real excitement here is seeing where he came from – the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, which offers up a heady mix of tradition and futuristic tech, cutting edge science and sometimes problematic tribalism. It’s the visual equivalent of a Sun Ra album or a P-Funk stage show – EMP-driven monorails, saucer-like flying craft, cosmic mysticism and a riot of Afrocentic decoration. Wakanda is also, though, an hereditary monarchy (there are some suprising similarities to Netflix hit The Crown here) whose newly-annointed King has to balance the conflicting pulls of isolationism and intervention in the wider world.
This becomes more than just a question of geopolitical theory with the arrival of Erik Killmonger, an embittered yet tragic figure whose Wakandan heritage was stolen from him when he was abandoned as a child to grow up on the mean streets of America. Killmonger is one of Marvel’s most complex and memorable bad guys – one who has a real and important point to make about the relationship between nationhood and the Black diaspora – and Michael B Jordan’s performance is a powerful and heartfelt one. It’s a standout, but just one among many. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is frankly irresistible, just as he should be – regal, softspoken and cool as a cucumber, with a sly sense of humour lurking under all the gravitas.