TL; DR — Much has been said online about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I loved it but it has some flaws. This is not a review but a reaction. I felt I had to make a point or two that I don’t see too many people making and might well be (gasp) original ones no one has made yet that I’ve seen (I didn’t search too hard, don’t troll me :D). This write-up has some mild spoilers in that it refers to some dialogue and set-pieces/ plot elements in the movie. I recommend reading it after seeing the movie if you’re sensitive about such things.
Where I’m Coming From
So Black Panther came out, I don’t know if you heard.
Rightfully so, most analysis of this movie has been about representation and diversity. Representation not only of black people, but also of women . As far as I am concerned this movie is more feminist than Wonder Woman was. Then again what do I know, I am neither Black nor a Woman. (if you want that perspective watch this excellent video by Danielle Radford)
I’m going to write this reaction to the movie from my own lens — as an Indian high-fantasy, comic book and movie geek who relates little (if at all) to the African American/ female experience but has enormous bones to pick with colonialism, imperialism, and rah rah portrayals of American hegemony in pop culture. So here goes.
The Uncanny Valley of Wakanda
Wakanda is the most important supporting character in the movie, and not everyone can digest it.
There were two remarkable live reactions in progress last evening as I and a bunch of friends watched Black Panther on opening night. There was I and a few other die-hard comic-fare fans paying obeisance to Marvel, our Marketing-Popular-Conscious-Lifestyle-Goliath Overlords! We were drinking in every iota of sensory detail, cooing and cackling at every adherence to (or departure from) the ‘Marvel formula’. We were sated.
Then there were at least two dissenters (my wife one of them) giggling at how ridiculous it was that everyone was acting and looking so — tribal! — in an otherwise science fiction setting. The lip-plated, green-suited River Tribe elder got a few giggles, as did the observation that most of the ceremonial robes T’challa wore were sherwanis and kurtas to our eyes.
In terms of world-building Wakanda resides in an uncanny valley. It might be easy to see how it is peak Afro-futurism; a fictional projection of a corner of Africa sans the lingering devastation that colonialism/ imperialism and slavery brought on. That’s not a stretch by itself — what my friends found difficult were the sci-fi elements it was fused with.
My wife found it discordant to have a very tribal, colorful, coronation scene by a waterfall happen a hot minute before the hero gets kitted out like James Bond in a Star Trek lab, and flies away into a faux-Vegas casino in Busan, Korea. How can a guy dressed in furs and whooping like a Gorilla use his Luddite weapons to fight a sonic spear wielding “rebel” faction leader? “What is this I am watching?” she wondered aloud. (She ended up on “‘The last hour of the movie redeemed it”. The giggles went away once the antagonist revealed his motivation)
This to me is classic high-fantasy world-building. Wakanda does not simply exist but comes alive, and it is jarring because it is so rooted in reality and the familiar but is so very odd.
Marvel have attempted this once before — with Asgard — but Asgard was easy to digest (by design) as an “else-place out in the stars”. It left you with an impression of golden glowing fuzziness that never felt — or wanted to feel — real. Asgard was Marvel playing it safe and explaining away gods and magic with fake science. Wakanda is the next step. It is wondrous and sci-fi, yes; but more importantly it messy, human, feudal, and complex.
The Exceptional Phenomenon of Wakandan Exceptionalism
Iron Man opened with Tony Stark chatting up the American military in Afghanistan. Captain America is, well — Captain America. The Incredible Hulk was all about General Thunderbolt Ross chasing his green Moby Hulk. The Avengers, Ultron, Winter Soldier, Civil War — they were all extremely American movies that tackled explicitly American issues. They only obliquely, and then mildly, critiqued America.
In fact forget the MCU. I posit you’ll find it hard to point to a genre blockbuster in post 9/11 times — including the terrible Michael Bay ones about alien robots fighting each other because, reasons — that doesn’t at least passingly glorify and celebrate America.
Now consider this: General Akoye of the Dora Milaje (played by Danai Gurira) snarls “Americans” at one point in the movie with significant distaste. At another point she calls guns primitive before going on to do something badass. In a United Nations speech T’Challa talks about building bridges instead of barriers and he has a little debate with a friend about letting refugees in. An American is air-lifted to Wakanda so he can get life-saving medical care. Remember Killmonger’s ambition to liberate his brethren? He’s liberating them from the American government because Black Lives Matter and F*ck the Police. The movie literally opens with a black superhero immune to gunfire rescuing people from modern day slavers!
Critiques of America and American Exceptionalism are rare in mass-media in general — the furthest most movies will go is to point to the mistakes as being a stumble on the path to a more perfect union. Maybe a Spike Lee or an Oliver Stone movie will be more pessimistic, but they are disparaged for being so. And here we have a Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstream blockbuster saying the “shining city on the hill” is not America but fictional, exotic Wakanda.
The sheer gumption made me gasp.
To the victims of human trafficking early in the film Wakanda is a regional enigma to be revered. To us, the audience it is a political hot-bed where the King sits on the throne only because all the tribes allow him to (many reviews are calling out analogies to A Game of Thrones). And throughout the movie, to its citizens, it is a country that commands a nationalism and a pride that no American movie would normally dare ascribe to anything but the United States itself. And all of this is done with a light touch and showing, not telling.
By the end of the movie, as Wakanda ends its isolation and begins outreach to the world it is positioned as a mentor nation and a savior not only to Africa — but also to the United States! Its King addresses the General Assembly with a knowing smile one reserves for wayward children who don’t know what’s good for them.
It’s not a perfect film. It devolves into your standard Act 3 histrionics by the end including a CG-heavy mano-e-mano duel that’s a bit blah. (It does gut-punch you at the very climax with a line about choosing death over chains even as it concludes said battle.)
The film honors more conventions of superhero cinema than you’d initially realize. It has amazing characters and brilliant performances, gorgeous art direction, an engaging background score and soundtrack, some great chills and a fantastic loyalty to the spirit of the comic books that inspired it. Ryan Coogler has taken the best elemental bits from iconic Black Panther runs in the comics and fused them into something entirely his own.
But let’s face it: 18 movies in, all of that is par for the Marvel course.
What sets it apart and elevates it for me is the leap of imagination that is Wakanda — a wholly original if non-existent land of the free, and home of the brave.