Marvel's 'Black Panther': A Review
Before the days of social media, and even before the days when everyone had telephones (let alone a smartphone) it was possible to believe that you had your own discoveries in terms of what you liked and adored - things that ‘no one else knew about’, that belonged to you alone, that were your own ‘secret pleasures’. One of the first of these for me was the long-running BBC TV series Doctor Who; another was the comedy TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and there were many others. These were things which were hardly ever mentioned outside the family - I didn’t even know if others knew of their existence. All I knew was that I loved them. No one ever talked about them; no one shared them, other than the immediate family. They were ‘mine’.
One of them was Marvel Comics. This was back in the 1960s, before comics became part of what they call the ‘mainstream’ and before anyone had invented the word ‘geek’. Comics back then occupied a peculiar twilight zone, known to so few that I could believe that they were known only to me. That special time in the 60s, when Stan Lee, working with other creators like Steve Ditko and particularly Jack Kirby, brought about a renaissance in a medium most people believed was long dead, was a fantastic time to be a child, especially when one’s father was also a fan and had purchasing power. We acquired every issue we could. Even migrating to Australia at the end of that decade didn’t stop the collection of these prized artefacts. Lee and his fellows were doing something amazing: they were building an interconnected fictive universe full of colour, radical concepts and unbridled ideas. I’ve talked elsewhere about the ground-breaking thinking that was involved in series like The Mighty Thor, but there were so many others that it was difficult to keep track, even then, when the number of titles was far less than it is today. There was Captain America, daring to touch upon delicate political subject matter during the Vietnam War; there were The Avengers, tackling issues like the meaning of what it was to be human and America’s treatment of its native populations; there was Spider-Man, confronting what it meant to be a hero with Lee’s immortal phrase which resonates even now, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.
And there was the Black Panther. A secondary character created by writer-editor Lee and writer-artist Kirby, the Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). His real name was T'challa, and he was the king and protector of a fictional African nation called Wakanda. By drinking an ancient Wakandan heart-shaped herb, T'challa gained superhuman powers but was also proficient in science, physical agility and hand-to-hand combat, as well as being incredibly wealthy and possessing advanced technology. Black Panther was the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, and has made numerous appearances in various television shows, animated films and video games since his appearance. Black Panther was ranked 51st overall in a ‘Top 100 Comic Books Heroes’ list in 2011.
Looking back, we can see how he was created at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, but this passed me by at the time - to me, he was just cool, a kind of African James Bond with cat-like powers, and the concept of a hidden kingdom in Africa, familiar to me from reading many Tarzan novels, was completely acceptable and exciting, especially because this was not some primitive enclave on a mountaintop but a sophisticated civilisation, better equipped than the American one into which T’challa came in the comics.
Placed into its contemporary social and political context, this was wild stuff: how Lee and Kirby managed to do this, with hindsight, is pretty astonishing. They were thinking, as they often did, ‘outside the box’: this wasn’t a simple attempt to portray a stereotyped black character struggling against social prejudice, as was the later Luke Cage or even the Falcon - this was a concept from ‘left field’: an autonomous, powerful, self-possessed, dignified and noble character, who came to America in a kind of role-reversal - he was the one bringing wisdom, advanced technology and a clean social perspective from the heart of Africa. Despite the provocative name (‘Black Panther’ was the name of an extreme black rights group at the time) he made no attempt to ‘colonise’ the States or to redress wrongs: he came in peace, to assist.
To that degree, the blockbuster movie which Marvel Studios released in 2018, in which the character of the Black Panther is portrayed in live action by Chadwick Boseman, remains true to its original material: we end up with T’challa adopting the position of a helper, bringing superior wisdom and tech from an unexpected place. And I can only applaud the acting, the design, the ferocity and energy of the film - it creates Wakanda with aplomb, not settling for a parody or clone of white culture and nationhood but drawing passionately on an African heritage. It’s exhilarating to see such a perspective brought to the big screen with tremendous dynamism and the film deserves its warm reception from critics and audiences. I enjoyed it and was glad to see it.
Where it slightly disappointed me was in its plotting. I had the feeling as I left the cinema that it had tried to do too much in its allotted time. It starts off with an in-built plotting difficulty: its lead character, T’challa, begins his character arc in a position more suited to the telling of a tragic tale. T’challa became king of Wakanda following the assassination of his father in Marvel’s earlier film, Captain America: Civil War, and it is the usual pattern for anyone beginning his story from that starting point to have nowhere to go but down. This is in effect what happens, because such patterns are usually undeniable: kings fall. Following the template of a Tragedy (about which you can read more in my book How Stories Really Work), the protagonist makes some wrong decisions and ends up ‘dead’. T’challa goes into agreement with his ancestors and follows the policy of keeping Wakanda and what it has to offer the world secret from other nations. This ultimately brings about a confrontation with a challenger, who then ritually battles T’challa for the throne of Wakanda in a kind of parallel of what happens to Macbeth. T’challa is apparently killed, in line with the powerful requirements of the Tragic template.
But of course this cannot be: this is a Marvel story about superheroes and we know that somehow T’challa must survive. Unfortunately, because of the sensitive issues around which the film as a whole treads, the challenger, Killmonger, with his attitude of wreaking a much-deserved vengeance upon the rest of the world for their maltreatment of Africa through the ages, carries a certain weight with any watching audience: why shouldn’t some kind of redress be made for the vile wrongs of the past? We’re not talking about aliens or mutants or ‘Inhumans’ or some other fictional sub-group here: we’re talking about a very real and very dispossessed portion of the human race. That hard reality impinges upon the film to a degree, and it’s difficult to shake the idea that Killmonger has a point.
But that’s not the film’s greatest flaw. The biggest problem is that, because of this plotting difficulty, we never quite get attached to T’challa emotionally. His ‘tragic flaw’, the inner character weakness which leads him down a tragic path, never quite ‘clicks’. And the clash between him and Killmonger is a little diluted as a result. In effect, if we define the protagonist as the character in a work of fiction who has the most to lose, or who has already lost the most (as outlined in How Stories Really Work) then Killmonger starts to rank ahead of T’challa at one point: his emotional losses pack more punch and carry more power to make us feel.
This could have been salvaged, but the point at which the film could have had the most emotional impact is wasted. T’challa, having apparently plunged to his death after defeat by Killmonger in single combat, disappears from the narrative for a while. This could have been a time when we might have seen into his soul and identified with his inner battle a little more. I was expecting him to emerge, wiser, stronger and more self-aware, at a critical point in the drama - instead, he is merely discovered unconscious and passive and brought back to life by the Wakandan herb which is the source of his superpowers. I was disappointed.
None of this ruined the film. It’s still enjoyable. I just thought that they missed out on an opportunity to go deeper.
The other thing I would have done (since you may be wondering) is switch the entire emphasis and meaning of the film with one particular stroke. At the beginning of the story, we see that Wakandan power rests upon the accidental arrival of a meteor from outer space which crashed into the heart of Africa. It is made of vibranium, the world’s strongest and most valuable metal (the rights to Marvel’s ‘adamantium’, the metal of which Wolverine’s skeleton is made, must reside elsewhere, I wryly concluded) which becomes the source not only of Wakanda’s vast wealth but also its secret powers, as the herbs which give the Black Panther his abilities are cultivated in vibranium-rich soil. So this meteor strike is the seed from which the entire plot grows - and I would switch it around.
This is how.
While T’challa was supposed dead and missing from the narrative, I would have had him somehow discover that the meteor’s arrival on Earth was no accident, that the vibranium-rich rock came to Earth intentionally, with intelligence (a la the monolith in Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and that it was the duty of its discoverers (it proclaimed, in my altered version) to distribute its riches to the globe as a whole. The subsequent failure to do this, the Wakandans’ refusal to spread the wealth and wisdom, then led to the downfall and misery of their fellow Africans, including their eventual slavery and oppression. T’challa, becoming aware of all of this through some kind of visionary experience, would return to the narrative as a much more powerful and significant figure, and his decision at the end of the film to reveal Wakanda’s true nature to the rest of the world would have packed much more punch and lifted the Black Panther into a more meaningful figure in Marvel’s pantheon.
But never mind. One day Kevin Feige will call me. Until then, enjoy Black Panther. It’s a passionate, action-filled movie and worth seeing. It’s just not the film it might have been.