Black Panther tells the origin story of the superhero Black Panther, a King of the fictional African hermit kingdom Wakanda. Although, his origin is quickly told: as the heir to the throne of the nation, he inherits the superhero powers that are given to each king. The story itself is much more about an internal power struggle within the kingdom in which the new king T’Challa fights for his throne and figures out what kind of ruler he wants to be. Although this is part of the Marvel universe, it is a standalone film.
The kingdom of Wakanda itself is more interesting than the Black Panther himself. Although Chadwick Boseman is a charismatic person, his character is a bit bland, and Wakanda is such an intriguing place. It is a highly developed, hidden kingdom with technology and riches that surpass the rest of the world, and it is presented as an Afro-futuristic world which is fascinating to see. I do feel though that the African identity elements in this movie only focus on visuals.
The two contenders for the throne also represent two different visions of Wakanda’s future. King T’Challa, originally taught by his father to keep the country save and sealed against the outside world, is now influenced by his ex-girlfriend to use Wakanda’s riches to help other Africans, refugees and to reach out to struggling communities abroad. The American trained soldier who usurped his throne instead wants to use Wakanda’s power to conquer and colonize. Through this very personal struggle between two men, the very role of Wakanda in the world will be decided.
I suppose the forces of good and evil are conveniently aligned with that of the native man versus the outsider and that of the calm person versus the murderous one. This makes for a very straightforward tale, a safe tale, but imagine if the sensibilities and opinions of the characters had been switched. What if T’Challa had wanted to conquer and the outsider wanted Wakanda’s riches to aid the community he came from? That would have made for a far more complex story. I think that would make for an interesting thought experiment, but one that doesn’t fit with the superhero they wanted to create. We’re not filming Blood Diamond here.
And by pointing out all these conveniences I feel like I am missing the point anyway. Black Panther is supposed to be exciting and inspiring. A figurehead to cheer on. Muddling everything up with complex moralities has no place here. This is a film filled to the brim with messages. And I do think that Black Panther the superhero and Wakanda the nation are established here in an exciting and inspiring way. Wakanda’s technology is visually stunning, it’s existence is intriguing and Chadwick Boseman is a charismatic man. I’m surely interested in future instalments set in Africa.
All in all, the story is a nicely epic, emotional one that is easy to feel invested in. But the story of Wakanda the nation is more interesting than King T’Challa himself. He is still figuring out what kind of king he wants to be, but that struggle isn’t felt that much in him. Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist makes a stronger impression on me, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister plays a funny, cheeky sidekick who’s a pleasure to see acting.
I thought the story was simplistic and by the book, but it hits on all the elements that you want to see in a superhero movie, including good action scenes, excitement, good visuals and the African identity feels like a fresh take. I didn’t miss all those annoying quips that plague other Marvel movies. And fresh takes is what we need in the superhero genre. I just hope that future sequels on this theme will have a more complex storyline.