Marvel’s Black Panther has raced cinematic records quicker than a Wakandan jet, and reviews have framed this movie as the pinnacle of superhero movies. So it was with tentatively high hopes that I went to see Black Panther, and I left quite surprised. Not because the movie wasn’t great, but because it wasn’t great in the way I expected it to be.
I expected a movie with a sensational plot, beautiful scenery, and brilliant technologies. What I got instead was a beautiful movie with all that, plus witty dialogue, and an authenticity and humility I never expected to see in a superhero movie.
Black Panther effortlessly showcases the beauty of both differences and similarities when we just allow ourselves to BE. Heir to the throne of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is the main character, but every other main character (that we actually like) is a woman, and all the women have roles of power: queen, scientist, spy, soldier.
T’Challa was neither threatened by nor distrustful of the fierce pack of women surrounding him. Rather, he drew upon their strength, letting them be extensions of his throne, mind, spirit, and claws. Also, while there was power in the black men and women, Ross (Martin Freeman; one of the few white characters) got his chance to shine as well.
Black Panther created a new world for us: Wakanda. Wakanda has beauty, rich culture, and power—all hidden to keep it safe. This small country in East Africa has a core of vibranium (that wonderful metal that made Captain America’s shield) which they use to power hover bikes, magnetic trains, super-suits, and advanced medical discoveries. The tribes under Wakanda’s protection are vastly diverse in appearance—some have gauges in their lips and ears, some wear intricate face paint, all have varied clothing styles.
In many ways, we are able to see what an African country could possibly have been if they had not been colonized by an abundantly white civilization. What if they were the first-world countries—not the Europeans? (And if science was a bit more wibbly-wobbly than it is.)
Black Panther’s storyline centers around the young prince, T’Challa, who must take the throne after his father dies. (See Captain America: Civil War.) But the unknown son of a lost brother comes from America to challenge T’Challa for the throne. This challenger, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan; no, not the basketball player), wants to take Wakanda’s resources and turn them into the weapons the underdogs of the world need in order to throw off their oppressors. A battle ensues between those who want Wakanda to be a place of peace and Killmonger’s followers, who want Wakanda to become the new world power.
I was incredibly surprised that Black Panther took the political agenda of the similarly-named Black Panther Party movement that rippled across the world throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s and effectively made that the mission of an unexpectedly sympathetic villain. Killmonger’s father was murdered when he was a kid. He saw his underprivileged neighborhoods going downhill as they were overrun with drugs, gangs, and the like. He saw his black brothers and sisters being treated as less-than the whites. And he saw his people constantly trying to buck an unjust system but unable to do so because the other side had the greater firepower.
So, Killmonger decides to go “claim his inheritance.” He wants to take Wakanda’s weapons and fight back against the powers of the world, to “beat them at their own game,” and give them a taste of the medicine they forced him to drink. He criticizes the Wakandans for sitting up in their tower while the world burns, deciding that the world needed to burn for a while.
Empower the impoverished so they can be free from their oppressors? Sounds great, right? Except Killmonger ultimately wants to destroy the world so that, for once, HE, the underdog, can be on top. He quickly turns the fight into us vs. them. There is no hope for unity; no concern if innocents get hurt along the way. To him, everyone is disposable, and he kills many people along the way to get what he wants.
Greeting this hatred is a gentle soul, a good man, a powerful king. T’Challa is a man who refused to take a life—even when it was his right to do so. He abhors the risk of Wakanda’s beautiful technologies becoming weapons. He desires safety for his people at all costs. He shows mercy time and time again to those who would kill him in a heartbeat. He tries to remain diplomatic with those he’s told he shouldn’t trust. He’s no pushover, but he is compassionate.
In many ways, T’Challa is the Martin Luther King Jr. to Killmonger’s Black Panther Movement, and, if anything, that’s the message I walked away with when I left the theater.
Unlike previous Marvel movies, I believe Black Panther’s wit and clever lines flowed effortlessly. There was no need to force the humor; the humor simply was. And crude humor was almost non-existent. (There’s one rude gesture.) Also unlike previous Marvel movies, it was very, very violent. It begins with violence, it continues with violence, and it ends with violence. There are some amazing fight scenes involving Black Panther, and especially with Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Dora Milaje, the warrior women who guard the king. But they are brutal, bloody, and unforgiving scenes.
Hatred consumes all. Only a desire to make the world better, to be humble enough to acknowledge when you are wrong, but merciful enough to extend a chance for unity—only this will ever change the world for the better. In fact, Black Panther, ends on that very note. While Killmonger’s last words on screen are full of hatred and bitterness, T’Challa ends the film by addressing the United Nations with a message of unity:
“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
Brianna is a manager at her favorite childhood bookstore. She is likely to be found curled up with a book and her black cat, Bear, talking to a stranger, dancing outside in a thunderstorm, singing Disney songs while making cookies, or snuggling her best friend's baby while drinking coffee. Her heart is fueled by the desire to help people find their unique wings and use them in whatever capacity God has created them for. She is passionate about seeing and finding Christ in the secular world wherever she can.