Jul 16, 2020
Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Black Panther (2018)
Previously: In late 2014, Marvel Studios announced Phase Three of its Cinematic Universe, and among the more noteworthy releases on the slate was Black Panther, the first MCU film starring a solo black lead. And for the first time in, well, the history of movies, a major studio was about to devote enough talent and money and resources to a film about a black superhero to do its source material justice. Marvel wasn’t about to give us another Steel, or another Spawn, or anything remotely as bad as the films that make up the mostly appalling history of black superhero movies.
At the time, it was a risky move. While Black Panther was created over 50 years ago and has made hundreds of appearances over the decades, both in solo stories and in various team-up books, he’s never been able to generate much of a fan following and most of his attempts to carry his own title were short-lived. Sure, nowadays we know in the wake of Ant-Man and Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy films that Marvel can spin box office gold out of even their most obscure properties, but in 2014 there was really no guarantee that people would show up for a Black Panther movie.
Well, they showed up. As of this writing, Black Panther has become the third-highest domestic grossing film of all time (beating Titanic’s record), the highest domestic grossing superhero movie of all time (beating The Avengers), and the tenth-highest grossing film worldwide, of all time. Somehow, a perennial C-list Marvel Comics superhero not only out-earned a movie featuring the entire Justice League, it nearly doubled its gross.
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With the weight of the entire Disney/Marvel marketing machine behind it, pretty much everybody knew Black Panther would be a hit. But I doubt anybody knew it would be this successful. Theories abound as to why the film took off in the way it did, with much of that speculation touching on topics of race, representation, and identity politics, and I’ll admit that people of color getting to see a movie where a brother kicks just as much ass as Batman or Captain America surely played a big part in the film’s success. But you don’t get to $1.3 billion solely by appealing to black American audiences, so there are clearly other forces at work here.
It’s likely that another big factor is that this is the first Marvel movie in a long time that doesn’t feel like the studio’s usual assembly line, cookie-cutter product. It’s obvious that Marvel president Kevin Feige and his production team were more hands-off this time, giving Ryan Coogler (director of acclaimed films Creed and Fruitvale Station) the freedom to do his own thing, and it shows. The result is the first MCU entry since possibly The Incredible Hulk that jettisons the rapid-fire, Whedonesque, quip-a-minute approach. And it’s one of the few Marvel films that isn’t afraid to embrace moments of real drama and emotion.
Also, virtually no upfront knowledge of any other Marvel movie is required viewing prior to seeing Black Panther. There are of course Easter eggs scattered throughout and various shout-outs, but it’s unique in that it feels like a true standalone, and not just another “episode” of the serialized MCU saga. And part of the proof is in how it doesn’t waste precious time establishing another Infinity Doodad or whatever for future movies. In short, it’s a Marvel film that appeals to people who don’t usually watch Marvel films.
And I’d love to leave it at that, but frankly, there’s no ignoring the current political temperature of the country and how it surely helped make Black Panther a mega-hit. Until proven wrong, I’ll just assume this movie is appealing to a wide swath of Americans who are getting very nostalgic about having a leader who’s intelligent, even-tempered, compassionate, and of African descent.
The plot: Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which Helmut Zemo engineered the assassination of T’Chaka, King of Wakanda, his son Prince T’Challa returns home to assume the throne. Here, we learn that while to the outside world, Wakanda appears to be a third world African nation, beyond a holographic mountain range lies the most technologically advanced civilization on earth.
Wakanda sits atop vast deposits of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man, and this element also seeps into a heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther his powers. Millennia ago, T’Challa’s ancestor, the original Black Panther, took the herb and united five tribes to form the kingdom of Wakanda who then decided to conceal their technological treasures from the rest of the world.
But before T’Challa can become king, he first has to take on any challengers to the throne. When the Jabari tribe’s leader M’Baku (better known in the comics as Man-Ape) challenges him, the two fight in ritual combat, until T’Challa bests M’Baku and he yields.
T’Challa then takes the glowing herb and is able to make contact with his dead relatives, who exist in the form of panthers with glowing eyes who reside on what’s both a spiritual plane and a spiritual plain. The ghost of T’Chaka reassures T’Challa that as king, he’ll always do what’s right.
We then meet T’Challa’s extended family, consisting of his mother Ramonda, his uncle Zuri, his best friend W’Kabi, and his younger sister Shuri, a teenager who develops most of the weaponry used by the Black Panther. We also meet members of the Dora Milaje, an all-female Wakandan special forces team who protect the throne, led by Okoye.
T’Challa’s ex-lover Nakia is a former member of the Dora Milaje, and is now one of many Wakandan spies working undercover throughout the world to further the interests of their country and its African neighbors. Early on, T’Challa suits up as Black Panther and leads a mission to extract Nakia from a caravan of mercenaries smuggling women to use as soldiers.
Upon becoming king, T’Challa’s first order of business is to recover a hunk of vibranium stolen by Ulysses Klaue, a South African arms dealer who’s using an illicitly acquired piece of Wakandan technology as an arm-cannon. Klaue is being assisted by an American named Erik Stevens, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan and racked up such a high kill count that he’s taken to calling himself “Killmonger”.
T’Challa and Nakia and members of the Dora Milaje travel to South Korea to apprehend Klaue at a casino, but it turns out the buyer for the vibranium is actually a CIA agent named Everett Ross. A firefight breaks out at the casino, leading to a car chase, after which Klaue is taken into CIA custody. While being interrogated, Klaue reveals to Ross and the CIA that Wakanda is really an advanced civilization masquerading as a nation of farmers.
Killmonger then breaks Klaue out of custody and they both escape, and Ross is gravely injured, so T’Challa and company take him back to Wakanda to heal him with their medical technology. Meanwhile, Killmonger murders Klaue, and takes his body to Wakanda, and declares that he’s staking a claim to the throne.
As it turns out, Killmonger is a Wakandan, and the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu. In a flashback to Oakland, California in 1992, we learn that N’Jobu was working as an undercover operative in the US, but soon began to steal Wakandan technology with the intent to share it with oppressed minorities in America. When T’Chaka learned of N’Jobu’s treason, he travelled to Oakland to capture him, leading to a confrontation where N’Jobu was killed.
But N’Jobu had a son with an American woman, who was abandoned to protect Wakanda’s secrets. That son eventually grew up to be Killmonger, who’s been preparing his entire life to take control of the kingdom that left him an orphan.
The Wakandans realize that Killmonger’s claim to the throne is legit, and he engages in ritual combat with T’Challa, this time to the death. T’Challa is defeated and Killmonger throws his body over a waterfall, and upon assuming the throne he decides to activate every undercover Wakandan operative around the globe, and send them advanced weaponry so they can overthrow tyrannical governments and bring the world under a new Wakandan order.
Of course, T’Challa didn’t die, but was instead rescued by the Jabari tribe. Nakia and T’Challa’s family help nurse him back to health, and with the support of Ross and M’Baku and the rest of the Jabari, he launches an assault on the palace to take back the throne and stop those weapons from leaving the country. Meanwhile, Killmonger has acquired his own Black Panther suit and he and T’Challa have another fight to the death. But this time, Killmonger is mortally wounded, and decides he’d rather die than live as a prisoner.
In the aftermath, T’Challa takes his sister to Oakland to see the apartment building where Erik’s father was killed. He declares that the now condemned building is going to be torn down to build a new Wakandan outreach center. In a mid-credits scene, T’Challa appears at the United Nations and reveals the truth about Wakanda and pledges to end his country’s secrecy.
And in a quick post-credits scene, we’re reminded that Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier was turned over to the Wakandans at the end of Civil War to cure him of the brainwashing he endured at the hands of HYDRA. Now calling himself the “White Wolf”, Bucky looks all rested up for whatever awaits him in Infinity War.
This is easily one of Marvel’s best films; while not a perfect film or a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, it’s one of the few superhero movies that’s unafraid to depict its inherently silly comic book premises with a completely straight face. And there are definitely a lot of aspects of this film that could come off looking pretty silly and stereotypical in the wrong hands, from the elite palace guard made up of spear-carrying warriors, to the click-based language of one Wakandan tribe, to the big plates worn in the lips of another.
And let’s face it, the notion that the most advanced nation on earth would use ritual combat to decide upon a leader is rather ridiculous. This seems like the surest way to end up with the most unbalanced, bloodthirsty, and power-hungry sociopath as king. (They really should come up with a more civilized way to pick a leader, like… I don’t know, an electoral college or something.)
But somehow, Coogler takes all these elements that could otherwise come off as a mockery of African culture and transforms them into a point of pride; in particular, the “Wakandan salute” has now taken on a life of its own, and become the modern successor to the raised Black Power fist at sporting events and other live TV broadcasts.
As stated before, this is a Marvel movie that doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie, and another reason is that it may have finally broken the MCU villain curse. It’s been a common complaint for years that Marvel’s villains are usually the weakest parts of these movies, and are almost always thinly-drawn, evil-twin versions of the heroes. But while Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger does don an alternate version of the Black Panther suit for the final fight, the movie actually takes the time to delve into Killmonger’s past and help us understand how he got to this point.
This primarily comes in the form of the vision he has after taking the glowing herb, in which his “spiritual plane” is an apartment in Oakland where he communes with the spirit of his dead father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) and we learn Erik/Killmonger isn’t driven by a simple quest for revenge; he also has the desire (misguided as it may be) to continue his father’s mission of leveling the playing field for the world’s disenfranchised. He puts characters like Malekith and Aldrich Killian and the rest of the MCU’s “he’s doing it because he’s evil” villains to shame, and it helps that for the first time, the bad guy is played by someone who displays at least as much (if not more) screen presence as the hero.
Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue (better known in the comics as simply Klaw) also makes for a more memorable villain than the ones seen in previous Marvel movies, simply by virtue of the fact that he’s not a cold, calculating genius, but rather a feeble-minded brute who’s only dangerous because he happened to get his hands on powerful technology. Klaue provides an intriguing counterpoint to Killmonger’s decades-long scheming, though I could have done without his impromptu rendition of Hardaway’s “What Is Love” while in CIA custody.
I doubt anyone’s clamoring to see Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross in future MCU films (except for Sherlock fangirls who are no doubt working on fanfic where he meets Doctor Strange), but he’s an notable character in that he follows in the footsteps of other MCU sidekicks like War Machine and Falcon and Heimdall and Mordo, but is one things those guys aren’t: white. At the very least, he shows that the token sidekick role knows no color lines when, just like the others, he gets one, maybe two heroic moments to justify his appearance.
Letitia Wright is simply adorable as T’Challa’s little sister, and steals every scene she’s in. But it does defy disbelief that a teenager could singlehandedly invent and build all of the fancy weapons and technology used by the Panther; they could have at least implied she has the whole Wakandan version of the Q branch working below her. (And yes, I realize Tony Stark being able to build all the toys he uses as Iron Man is ridiculous too, but at least we know Tony’s been at it for a few decades.)
There wasn’t a whole lot of depth to Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, but she does a fine job with what she’s given and she’s a likable presence wherever she shows up. Though I was bummed out to learn that she won’t be appearing in Infinity War despite a big chunk of the movie taking place in Wakanda. From Betty Ross to Pepper Potts to Jane Foster to Peggy Carter, there seems to be some sort of unspoken Marvel rule that the heroes’ significant others can’t show up in an Avengers movie (unless she happens to be secretly married to Clint Barton).
As for the rest of T’Challa’s kin: Forest Whitaker is solid in his role as Zuri, T’Challa’s uncle, who’s mainly here to explain what happened in Oakland in 1992, and also fill the Dr. Yinsen role of dying to inspire the hero to fight the villain even harder. Daniel Kaluuya plays T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi, who seems to sympathize with Killmonger’s worldview, which leads to his betrayal of T’Challa. I can’t say Kaluuya has any memorable scenes in the movie, but he was great in Get Out and it’s nice to see him get another high profile gig. And Angela Bassett doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the role of Wakanda’s queen, but damn, does she look the part.
You might have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the entire cast and I have yet to get around to mentioning the star of the film, Chadwick Boseman. Really, he’s fine. He gets the job done, and I have no qualms about his casting. But this might be the only Marvel movie where the central superhero is one of the least interesting characters in the cast. Michael B. Jordan basically blows Boseman off the screen in every scene they have together. But Boseman has done strong work elsewhere, so this may simply be a case of the script not giving him anything meaty to really show off his acting chops.
But hey, a cast with so many great characters that the one in the center of it all is only slightly less compelling? There are certainly worse problems for a film to have.
Ultimately, however, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, and it’s still a film where the villain is a twisted doppelganger of the hero and his evil scheme is one where the whole world is at stake, and the finale is a big, frenetically edited battle full of faceless minions who pound away on each other until the inevitable moment where the villain drops dead and the fighting instantly stops and we can all go home. But I’d say there were more than enough deviations from the MCU formula here to actually make me look forward to seeing these characters in future films.
As for what was going on in Black Panther comics at the time… Hmm. Nope. I still know next to nothing about recent comics, which is why I once again had to turn to Thomas Stockel to see if he could handle the arduous task of recalling what was going in Marvel Comics all of two months ago:
April 2016 saw the publication of a new Black Panther series just prior to the release of Captain America: Civil War. This was no coincidence, as Marvel Comics no doubt hoped the hype surrounding Black Panther’s appearance in the movie would spark interest in the character. And indeed that was the case early on, as New York Times bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comic started off strong in terms of sales. Unfortunately, Marvel saw this initial success as an indicator that Black Panther could support more than one title.
April of 2017 saw three Black Panther comics being published at the same time: Black Panther, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, and Black Panther and the Crew. Unfortunately, there are only a few characters not named Batman who can sustain this many titles, so World of Wakanda and The Crew both only lasted six issues.
A Black Panther annual was released in February, the same month the movie came out, and the film’s release saw a brief spike in interest in the comic. But sales since have been mediocre and the title has already been canceled. But canceled comics are nothing new, and another Black Panther series is already set to debut in May, with a storyline that will see shake-ups in both T’Challa and Wakanda’s future, and Black Panther will be a part of the new Avengers lineup the same month.
Next up: Wait… are we done? We’re done! Much thanks to Thomas for initiating the Countdown to Infinity War articles, and I hope you found the experience of revisiting all 18 Marvel movies as enlightening as we did. And now you’re all caught up just in time for the release of Avengers: Infinity War, which is only days away. Who will live? Who will die? Who will kiss (at least) 12 bucks goodbye? We’ll find out this Friday.