Wakanda! A land of secrets. This is the homeland of the Black Panther. It sits on the world’s largest deposit of the exotic element vibranium, which enables Wakandans to achieve fantastic technological heights beyond the rest of the world (Flying cars! Healing damaged spinal columns! Fingerprint-sized communication devices with global range! Maglev trains! Oh, and collapsible armor-piercing spears—which fire energy waves!). This technology also allows them to disguise the entire nation as an impoverished, third-world African country behind a nation-sized holographic illusion, keeping their achievements (and their stores of vibranium) safely hidden from outsiders. Vibranium is so much a part of the land that it affects local plant life, giving rise to the “heart-shaped herb” which gives whoever eats it the powers of the Black Panther—superhuman strength, speed, and senses.
Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to take the throne of Wakanda following the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), in Captain America: Civil War. Succession is through ritual combat and anyone from a royal bloodline of one of the five Wakandan tribes can issue a challenge. He who wins the fight takes the throne, assuming the mantle of the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda.
Enter Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The son of a Wakandan prince, Killmonger has spent his life in exile, in black ops and mercenary groups, training in the hopes of taking the Wakandan throne—and the powers of the Black Panther—for himself.
Arley: Finally, we have a major motion picture starring a Black superhero! I think the last major production was Blade with Wesley Snipes.
Josh: Blade is a vampire movie, not a superhero movie.
Arley: It’s probably seen as a vampire movie but its technically a superhero movie. It’s based on a Marvel comic book.
Black Panther is a high-intensity action movie with underlying social and political commentary. It moves fast and hits fast. Every few minutes the movie introduces a different element which takes viewers in a new direction. This film doesn’t rely solely on one technique to deliver entertainment—not just CGI, not just action scenes, or interaction and dialogue, etc.; it keeps everything fresh by interchanging an array of effective cinematic devices. The beginning feels like a James Bond movie—one character acts like Q with all her gadgets while three other Wakandans travel the world, hunt an international arms dealer, have gunfights in casinos, and high-speed chases in fancy cars.
Even with the initial complicated setup, it’s easy to pick out some foreshadowing devices. The film’s overall direction is an entertaining mystery up until a pivotal moment about halfway through when it shifts from a fun and surprising spy flick to something a little more predictable. The action returns to Wakanda and stays there while Marvel does what it does in a lot of its movies: pits two people who have the same power against each other (the same advanced technology, the same esoteric combat training, the same source of magic or supernatural ability, etc.), presenting them as seemingly equally invincible. (For example Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, the Eric Bana Hulk, the Edward Norton The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, at least one of the Thor movies, and Deadpool, just to name a few.) A sharp-eyed viewer who has seen enough of these can guess the ending of Black Panther fairly early on but there’s enough going on in the film to distract from this Chekov’s gun, culminating in a massive battle scene that showcases the full power of Wakanda’s technology, including war rhinos!
Josh: I saw a lot of the plot points coming a mile away but I’ll admit I did not see those war rhinos coming at all!
A good story provides steady escalation of tension and danger, ratcheting up stakes as the tale progresses, which Black Panther does. The initial stakes: keeping Wakanda and its vibranium hidden. Escalation comes when Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) steals a load of vibranium and threatens to reveal the secrets of Wakanda. As this threat seems contained, the next escalation is Killmonger, making a move for the throne. But the final escalation, the ultimate level of danger in Black Panther, is when Killmonger wants to spread Wakandan technology and arm Black people all over the world.
Arley: Arming “people like us,” Killmonger says.
Consider the implications of this message—that the worst possible threat is arming Black people globally. T’Challa views this as such a threat that he’s willing to order his own people fired upon to stop it from happening, but the question has to be asked: does arming poor Black people with weapons really mean civil war and global uprising? The opening scene of the movie is set in Oakland CA, where the Black Panther party of the ’60s and ’70s was formed and headquartered. Among the ideas of the Black Panther party was the concept of armed citizen patrols, arming Black people for their own defense. Is it T’Challa who fears this scenario? Or is this playing with certain American demographics who might view this as the worst thing that could happen? These could be deliberate call-outs on the part of the filmmakers, referencing the Black Panther party and government paranoia of armed citizens.
At the same time, the film demonstrates the empowerment of Black people in a number of ways, and shows a diversity of characters—in other words, that Black characters can be all kinds of people, and should not be limited to a type—which is lacking in many other films. Notably, empowerment is highlighted in a scene where the Caucasian CIA agent is called “colonizer” and is flat-out shut down by a Wakandan tribal leader: “You cannot speak here.”
The performance of the main actors is top-notch, delivering an array of complex characters. And without delving into preachy tactics, Black Panther puts women right up front, in a variety of roles, while centering the narrative on Black people, Black culture, and Black issues. T’Challa/the Black Panther is the main character, but he is clearly nothing without his sister Shuri the scientist (Letitia Wright), as well as the general of his army Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his undercover agent / former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Shuri adds intelligent comic relief, undercutting T’Challa’s sense of self-importance (as a younger sibling should). Okoye is the “best warrior” in the kingdom—not just told she is the best warrior, but lives up to the title in actual combat: a statement on the power of women. And Nakia has her own goals and missions independent of T’Challa’s: she’s no one’s sidekick! Warrior, mother, scientist, spy—this is a movie in which women are central, relevant, making decisions, and not stuck in any singular characterization.
Arley: It’s good that there are a variety of roles for women, with up front, strong female characters, but does it seem like only a male can be king and run the kingdom? I can’t tell if this is implicit, or if it’s just not clarified. Side note: as Americans, we value democracy and preach independence, yet we tend to idealize and idolize monarchies, especially those with strong rulers. How many movies are there about King Arthur, or this or that king in space, or TV shows like The Magicians, where the idea of monarchic rule is glorified in one way or another? Still, I’m glad we have a Black king and a positive role-model/action hero.
The portrayal of Wakanda deliberately marries tradition with modernism. The driving conflict of the film is in negotiating the two. As political commentary, this raises a question of whether or not modern nations should interfere with other sovereign nations. Killmonger is an extremist who wants to arm Black communities around the world and King T’Chaka was an isolationist—let the world sort out its own problems. T’Challa’s compromise is to share vibranium or vibranium-based technology without giving away weapons. It seems overly idealistic to believe that Wakanda can reveal the existence of such a powerful technology and not expect it to be used by other nations (the United States, especially) for weaponry and warfare. It’s the same problem of nuclear and weapons proliferation that nations face today.
It could be said that Wakanda itself is a metaphor for Black people in several ways, but most clearly as being set upon by presumptions without understanding or even real attempts at understanding by outsiders. Thematically, Black Panther is about coming together despite differences. The thrust of most conflicts is separation—between peoples, between cultures, between tradition and modernism. At the end, T’Challa says, “There is more that unites us than separates us.”
Arley: I feel like the response to T’Challa’s offer is basically white people asking, “What can Wakanda possibly offer?” and it really hammers in the idea of prevalent societal reactions to Black people in general: exclusion, skepticism, suspicion, rather than an effort at seeking friendship and engagement.
Viewers can watch this film as a fun superhero movie, as an engaging action movie, as a statement on gender and politics, or peel back even more of its layers. And while we hope it spurs conversations, the goals of the movie seem to be mutual understanding and improved relationships among people of different backgrounds. We hope the message gets through.
Josh: Although I don’t read a lot of comic books, I think I’ve seen every single one of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe films. I don’t like a lot of them but Black Panther is easily in my top three or four (out of 18 so far). This movie simply looks good. The costumes and colors are astounding, the set design is good. The action scenes aren’t just action for action’s sake so they don’t get boring. And I loved the soundtrack. I remember seeing a trailer for this movie and thinking to myself, “Man, I hope they just play Kendrick Lamar throughout the entire movie.” (Which they basically did.)
Arley: Well, I do (or did) read a lot of comic books. And they all diverge from what comic books fans would consider canon. All the same, as a composed piece, this movie is slick and well-put together.
Josh: Okay, lightning round. Who was your favorite character? Mine was Shuri. I totally bought that she and T’Challa were siblings. And Andy Serkis’s villain was more complex and interesting than I was expecting.
Arley: I loved Shuri, but I also loved seeing Okoye just clown people with her spear. She is a powerhouse. And in a sense, put in the most uncomfortable position of anyone else in the movie; her character demonstrates her strength by sticking to her convictions.
Josh: Favorite line or moment? Mine was when T’Challa simply said, “Hiiiiiii.”
Arley: “Hi auntie!” So many great lines though!
Josh: Nice to see your hometown represented on the big screen, huh?
Arley: Oakland forever.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole, based on the comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. A Bay Area native, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.