The only thing more extraordinary than the rapid acceleration of Black Panther from being “just another Marvel movie” to a bonafide pop culture phenomenon, is arguably the film itself. While the all-engulfing conversation around Black Panther has mainly concerned its record-breaking box office performance and the huge significance it holds for people of color, another revolutionary aspect of the film is getting lost in the mix.
I made something of a rod for my own back in my pre-release review for Black Panther when I proclaimed that Marvel had finally mixed up their formula as I was unable to qualify my headline in any real detail without violating the sacred “Spoiler-Free” bond. However, with the astonishing box office numbers attributed to Black Panther over the last week, it’s now probably safe to engage in a spot of spoiler talk given that nearly every man, woman, and child has seen the movie at least once. So, let’s look at why Black Panther isn’t just a game changer at the box office but also for its own franchise.
A SELF-CONTAINED MARVEL
Marvel Studios learned early on in Iron Man 2 that overloading a story with too much universe-building was to the detriment of the film and, ultimately, the franchise. Over the last decade, the studio has become more shrewd in balancing a movie’s plot with the over-arching narrative of the MCU and have reaped the rewards of much greater critical and audience approval as a result. However, it has still often been a valid criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that certain titles have been more akin to stepping stones to future films, rather than a fully formed piece itself. This most certainly does not apply to Black Panther, though.
Although the twelve movies released since 2012’s The Avengers have been set after the first showdown between the titular heroes and Thanos’ first wave of attack, Black Panther is the first entry since Guardians of the Galaxy to be in no way beholden to The Battle of New York, infinity stones, or the creeping threat of Thanos. It’s fair to say that even if someone (somehow) hadn’t seen an MCU movie before, there wouldn’t be a single frame of Black Panther they couldn’t appreciate fully without any knowledge of the preceding 17 films (apart from The Winter Soldier post-credit stinger, of course). Yes, there were returning characters in the shape of Ulysses Klaue, Everett K. Ross, and the Black Panther himself but their previous appearances were little more than cameos in Captain America: Civil War and all of them are established far more here.
We already know that some of Avengers: Infinity War will take place in Wakanda and strongly suspect the last infinity stone is located there (though this is neither revealed or confirmed in Black Panther). So, with the futuristic African nation being the final piece of the Infinity War puzzle and given its isolationist attitude, it was smart of Marvel to focus entirely on the fictional country and its inhabitants. Indeed, that Marvel has managed to sell a crucial piece of backstory to their forthcoming tentpole movie as a polished gem of a self-contained story only serves to signify the studio’s next-level mastery of their craft.
If Black Panther is a harbinger of Marvel taking a more intrinsic, holistic approach to their solo films which can now function just as well in isolation as they do as part of the greater whole then the Disney subsidiary may have finally put to rest one of its longest standing criticisms. Time will tell, of course, but another incumbent complaint was also resolved in Black Panther.
BAD TO THE THRONE
“Bad at bad guys” is a sentiment that echoes through many, many reviews of the many, many MCU films – including my own. It is an entirely justified grievance, and a mystifyingly regular one too given Marvel’s unfailing talent to fully realize their protagonists. So why do their antagonists so often fall flat?
Generally, it comes down to a combination of flimsy motivations, a lack of genuine threat, reduced presence/screen time, and incredulous objectives. These factors often leave the typical MCU villain feeling like a one-dimensional cypher purely employed to create conflict for the more fleshed-out heroes. Marvel’s inadequate solution to the issue so far has been to increase the star power in the adversary role, but this has often just made the problem more pronounced when, for instance, you have someone of Mads Mikkelsen’s immense talent playing little more than a vapid henchman to rival Doctor Strange’s incomparable powers.
However, Black Panther almost over-compensates in rectifying this niggling trope in the MCU by giving us not one, but two exceptional villains. Firstly, we have Andy Serkis gnawing on the scenery as the South African arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue. On paper, Klaue is nothing to get too excited about and in many ways conforms to the lackluster ways of previous Marvel villains, but Serkis brings him to life with a sense of anarchic mischief that makes the most of his short screen time. In my review, I did add a mild criticism that his appearances were too few but in retrospect, I now believe this was necessary to give the true villain of piece space to breathe.
Michael B. Jordan’s Erik ‘KIllmonger’ Stevens is nothing short of a revelation in the MCU. Whereas previous antagonists have been thoroughly one-note in their depictions, Killmonger’s actions, motivations, and backstory add several shades of grey to his character. It is often said that the most effective villains are the ones who’s reasoning and plans make sense and quite why it has taken Marvel Studios 18 films to learn this is something known only to them, but Killmonger is the most relatable bad guy so far in the MCU and perhaps even within the genre itself.
Betrayed as a child by the former Wakanda king, T’Chaka, and left to fend for himself on the streets of Oakland to witness the subjection of his fellow African descendants first-hand, Erik’s motivations for having an axe to grind with the Wakandan government are not only clear but justified too. Likewise, his master plan to use Wakanda’s vibranium-based technology to wage what would be an extremely one-sided race war is implemented with a plausible subversion of Wakanda’s ruling class. T’Challa may be the titular Black Panther, but it is Killmonger who most resembles those who go under the same title in the real world. And he isn’t the only searing political indictment in Ryan Coogler’s film.
A BLACK MIRROR
From the world going into turmoil after a large-scale disaster in New York (see 9/11) after the events in The Avengers to Michael Keaton’s blue-collar Adrian Toomes turning to a life of crime as The Vulture after being laid-off at the start of Spiderman: Homecoming (see the Wall Street crash of 2008), there has always been a vague sense of politicization in Marvel’s films. Black Panther, however, bears its claws when it comes to real-world allegories.
By employing an afro-futurist aesthetic for Wakanda, Coogler’s portrayal of an isolationist African superpower isn’t just a rebuke to Donald Trump’s infamous (alleged) “shithole countries” remark, it also schools the sitting president on his protectionism crusade. While the Wakandans like to think of themselves as a noble people, their self-imposed isolation has led to the devastation and exploitation of the rest of the continent. A form of “black privilege” is incumbent throughout the Wakandan tribes and their apathy to the rest of the world’s issues should pose some difficult questions to the “America First” crowd.
Wakanda isn’t just meant to be a black reflection of white nationalism, though, as it also sends a clear message to successful African-Americans who turn their back on their community once they’ve got a seven-figure bank balance. Subversively, it is the hero of the piece, T’Challa, who initially finds himself in this “sunken place” and is encouraged to stay there by the determination of Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi to keep Wakanda’s borders closed to refugees. T’Challa’s usurpation by Killmonger is an intervention to T’Challa’s attitudes and causes our hero to change his thinking, proving once again that Black Panther’s adversary is more than just a thorn in his side but is actually integral to his evolution to his character.
NO MORE MR. WISEGUY
One of the MCU’s most prominent trademarks has been its inexhaustible sense of humor, but it has often been as much of a benefit as a hazard to the franchise. While the jokes and wisecracks generally hit their comedy marks, it can sometimes undermine the actual drama as a result. This is known as “bathos” and it has become an occasional irritation within not just the MCU but Disney films at large (e.g. the “forced” humor of The Last Jedi).
There is plenty of wit contained within Black Panther but it is kept check whenever the film needs to express the gravitas of a certain situation. The more judicious deployment of wisecracks and more dramatic tone adds a level of investment that so often eludes superhero movies. It also never embarrasses itself by taking matters too seriously which also helps keep things distinctly “Marvel” still.
This is perhaps more of an evolution than a revolution for the MCU, but it is refreshing to see Marvel push the tonal needle much further in the other direction after the out-and-out comedy of Thor: Ragnarok. It also a needle that will likely come to rest at the mid-point come May this year when the Infinity Wars begin in earnest and it may actually be a little frustrating to see the MCU resort to its old tricks after Black Panther has felt like such a breath of fresh air for the shared universe. However, variety is a something that has been too sparingly sprinkled on the MCU and Black Panther‘s huge success should show Marvel Studios that it is indeed the spice of life.