By Kahini Iyer Feb. 15, 2018
Black Panther transcends the stereotype of being “just” a superhero blockbuster, which is becoming an art Marvel films have started to perfect. It’s a post-colonial sci-fi saga with something important to say.
Even for the uber-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, which seems to take up more of our thoughts than the universe we live in, Black Panther has been subject to an inordinately high amount of interest ever since its announcement in January 2017. And with enough reason.
Hoping that everybody has forgotten 1998’s Blade starring Wesley Snipes, Marvel is pegging Black Panther as its first film starring a superhero of colour in a lead role. Black Panther was the first black superhero in comic book canon, so it’s only fitting that he breaks the monotony of cookie-cutter caucasian leads. Following Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America’s bloated trilogies, T’Challa’s first film is also a tonic to the glut of Marvel super-sequels. Apart from the character’s explosive introduction in Captain America: Civil War, the plot doesn’t rely on the other films in the MCU pantheon. Which is nice, because it gives the super-stacked cast, featuring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B Jordan, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, and Andy Serkis, room to do justice to the story.
Given the kind of hot, come-in-your-pants anticipation Black Panther generated, it was easy to have fears about the film being overhyped. But Black Panther delivers. Both as a standalone film and as the latest addition to the endless Marvel line-up. Set after the events of Civil War, the story follows T’Challa’s coronation as King of Wakanda, a small, prosperous African nation that sits on a massive supply of valuable vibranium. For centuries, Wakandans have developed the most sophisticated vibranium technologies, but fearing the outside world’s greed, they keep their progress a secret and masquerade as just another Third World African country. Beyond their vibranium Iron Dome is a stunning urban utopia governed by tradition and ritual.
The gorgeous, thoughtful visual experience, stunning action sequences, and tight bits of humour are window dressing for a larger question.
As such, the Kingdom of Wakanda is the most significant character in the Black Panther storyline, even more than the superhero himself. Much of Africa is still beset with neo-colonial resource exploitation, war, and corruption. The Wakandan vision explores what is possible when an African nation’s resources are used for its own enrichment.
After generations of isolationism, Wakandans must face the ethical dilemma that comes with hoarding their technological advances. Is it their duty to help the rest of the world? Should they alleviate the suffering of other African communities, or give them the means to fight back against oppression? T’Challa grapples with defining his legacy, and Black Panther frames him as a cautious Black Saviour, who is conscious that interventionism comes with its own problems.
Opposite T’Challa is Erik Killmonger, the aptly named ugly American interloper who doesn’t care for diplomacy or peace. He wants to see Africans reclaim their power by any means necessary. Killmonger thinks T’Challa is too weak, while T’Challa believes that Killmonger has become what he hates. The standoff between them is Biblical, a throwback to Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, or closer to home, Gandhi and Sardar Patel. The difference is that T’Challa really does hold all the cards here. If he says the word, Wakanda could easily create a vibranium-powered empire where the sun never sets, a quote that pointedly references the peak of British imperialism.
Black Panther transcends the stereotype of being “just” a superhero blockbuster, which is becoming an art Marvel films have started to perfect. It’s a post-colonial sci-fi saga with something important to say. The gorgeous, thoughtful visual experience, stunning action sequences, and tight bits of humour are window dressing for a larger question: What have we really learned from colonialism? When the global balance of power shifts in our favour, will we know what to do? Black Panther recognises that there are no easy answers, and maybe no right ones. But as T’Challa discovers, inaction is not an option.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.