Review: Black Panther’s Box Office Success Is Well Earned

Black Panther is sprinting toward the 1 billion dollar mark in revenues after just two weekends, and its box-office success is well-earned. As a film, Black Panther is excellent in most elements, from its casting, to the studio’s investment in a well-rounded story, to the progression of the movie’s characters, to the commitment to high production values. The director and screenwriters more than compensate for the few plot holes through their compelling story, well-crafted action, superb direction and acting, and top-notch visual and digital effects.

The movie’s story is grounded in the Marvel Comics’ universe (complete with a cameo from Marvel founder Stan Lee). Centuries ago, a meteor lands in central Africa, implanting a mysterious metal called vibranium into the mountains and soil. Known as the hardest metal on Earth, humans want to use its properties to build the next biggest bomb to rule the world. In Africa, five tribes fought over control of the vibranium. One warrior ingested it through a heart-shaped plant and became the first Black Panther, imbued with superhuman powers including a heightened agility, extraordinary speed, and a sixth sense for predicting human action. The war comes to an end, and four tribes agree to use vibranium for peaceful purposes to build their civilization in a country called Wakanda. A fifth tribe (the Jabari) refuses to be ruled by the other four, and retreats into the mountains.

As the Western world descends into oppression, war, and chaos, beginning with the European slave trade, the united tribes use vibranium’s properties to raise their standard of living. They develop advanced technology—including maglev trains, suborbital space ships, advanced mining equipment, etc. They also create the cloaking technology that separates their world from the violence that rules the West. Wakanda trades small bits of vibranium to raise money for their kingdom, which to the outside world is a poor, farming nation.

Knowledge of vibranium’s properties, however, makes the mineral a coveted resource. Years earlier, nefarious arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Sirkus, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes, Avengers: Age of Ultron) infiltrated Wakanda to steal it, blowing up a village and killing hundreds of Wakandans. His capture has become a top priority for many, including the king’s trusted friend W’kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out, Sicario), head of the tribe protecting Wakanda’s borders. Wakanda’s survival, others believe, including the king/Black Panther, is based on remaining hidden from the outside world and resisting attempts to reveal their technology to the world.

When King T’Chaka (John Kani, Captain America: Civil War, End Game, Final Solution) is killed at a United Nations summit, his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Marshall, 42, Get On Up) is next in line for the throne and becoming the next Black Panther. Klaue’s whereabouts are discovered when he heists a Wakandan artifact from a museum in London with former Navy SEAL Eric Stevens (Micheal B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station, Creed, Red Tails), an African-American man who carries the swagger of a streetwise warrior and the confidence of someone who has survived more than one fight to the death. Stevens, it turns out, is of royal Wakandan descent with dreams of taking over the throne and harnessing vibranium to control the world. This quest, of course, sets up a climactic battle between Stevens and T’Challa that will determine the future of Wakanda and the world.

No summary of the film can adequately explain the layers of themes, subthemes, and plot complexities in Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s (Fruitvale Station, Creed) directing and screenplay, co-written with Joe Robert Cole (The People v. O.J. Simpson, American Crime Story), take this action film to new heights in storytelling as well as social relevance. As in many superhero films, the backstory presumes a romanticized, idyllic past that is corrupted by the lust for power, indulgence, and selfishness of the flawed human world. But this romanticized backstory belies the layered and complex contemporary story embedded in Black Panther.

The story and action scenes, combined with good acting and digital effects, would be enough to make this movie a good one. Black Panther’s genius, however, is less in how it recreates the superhero journey than in how the story is told and the layers it adds. Virtually all the characters are African or African-American, so the central conflict never becomes one about race. Rather, as in the better action films (see these reviews of the academy award nominated Logan and Captain America: Civil War), the story turns on conflicts over universal values and character. By juxtaposing characters in the same story with fundamentally different values and motivations—revenge, loyalty, compassion, narcissism, love—Coogler transcends race and speaks to these universal aspirations and truths. This creative decision also allows him to give his main characters dimension and complexity that are all too rare in superhero films, particularly those where African-American characters are less prevalent or central to the film.

Paradoxically, Black Panther’s dialogue is laced with references and phrases that serve as biting humor but would in other contexts be easy to dismiss as race-baiting, or cultural pandering to the African-American community. Whites, for example, are consistently referred to as “colonialists.” T’Challa’s science prodigy teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, The Commuter, Urban Hymn) is almost gleeful in having “another broken white boy to fix” when she is charged with healing mortally wounded middle-aged white CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, Captain America: Civil War, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, The Hobbit series) after his rescue by T’Challa and undercover spy Nakia (Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave). Wakanda is also frequently referred to dismissively as a Third World country, a taboo reference in mainstream academia in favor of terms such as low-income country or “emerging” markets. Black Panther, however, provides a context in which these terms add important meaning to the story. Wakanda is anything but a low-income country or emerging market. While the film allows the nation to cloak itself from the rest of the world, they are hidden, as the prologue says, “in plain sight.”

Perhaps most importantly, the film does not avoid grappling with important challenges within the African American community and politics. The violent death of Stevens’ father in the projects of Los Angeles radicalizes him to seek revenge and adopt a violent path to race-based justice. He dreams of overthrowing the oppressors (whites) with vibranium and destroying them through genocide. Stevens’ goals are in direct conflict with the cooperative, relational, and protective philosophy and way of life that defines Wakandan society. In a critical plot twist, Wakandans are the ones who abandon an apparently orphaned Stevens even though they could have choosen to raise him in his ancestral homeland. Differences in identity and experience become central wedges between the values of inner-city raised African-American Eric Stevens and native African Wakandans. Stevens fuels doubts the lead W’Kabi to test the authority of T’Challa, the rightful king, and break from Okoye (Danai Gurira, All Eyez on Me, Mother of George), the head of the all-female Dora Milaje who serve as bodyguards to the king.

These conflicts, of course, are not unique to African-American culture or the African-American experience. They are deeply rooted in most struggles to overcome political, economic, and cultural oppression in social systems with little economic or social mobility. Not all colonial Americans, for example, favored revolution and independence from Britain. Significant pluralities favored a negotiated end to their disputes with King George III and parliament. The struggle between nonviolent resistance (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and violent resistance (the American Black Power Movement and Black Panther Party) were central to determining the direction of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Before Gandhi’s nonviolent nationalist movement in India, the Sepoy Mutiny instigated a broad-based rebellion against British colonialism that is considered India’s First War of Independence.

Black Panther has a few plot holes—the opening scene is largely disconnected from the first half of the movie, Eric Stevens’ parental identity is solely embedded in his father even though his mother is the one who “radicalized” his father, few Wakandans die despite sweeping battle scenes–but these are largely quibbles given the movie’s breadth, scope, and artistic accomplishments. Coogler and Marvel Studios have produced an important and groundbreaking film that will likely rank high on “best film” lists. The box office numbers suggest Black Panther has also become a massive commercial bridge between the African-American community and American mainstream culture. All this is a good sign for American cinema and its continued cultural relevance.

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