Always Bet on Black
All superhero movies are about identity and the intersection between who you are and what you do, but with the recent exception of DC’s lone star in the critically acclaimed firmament, Wonder Woman, there’s seldom been a release as informed by the politics of self as Marvel’s Black Panther.
Ryan Coogler’s film, in keeping with the rest of the Marvel series, is not doing anything new per se – this is just a race-flipped appropriation of movies about succession anxiety in fantasy kingdoms, with a judicious drop of monarchical mayhem and even a little James Bond, which given the film’s stance on colonialism is a neat joke at that other long-running series’ expense. Blaxploitation’s been here before, changing the power dynamic within stories, proudly asserting BAME culture. But here it is, not as a sub-genre or cult offering, but a fully-fledged monster-budgeted blockbuster, albeit one in a series that’s played it safe for 17 pictures. Given the box office tracking, one senses they’ll never feel obliged to do so again.
Can one review Black Panther sans the identity politics? It’s tough because the story has no interest in being colour blind – it’s unapologetically a movie about the colonial legacy in America and around the world, about how white imperialism had subjugated and impoverished Black people both in poor countries and the poorest parts of its own.
It could have been a simple, generic superhero movie about the xenophobic race of Wakandans under threat from Andy Serkis’s evil South African – a man hoping to exploit their precious alien metal resource for profit. Instead, this is a sub-plot to set up the moral dilemma at the movie’s heart, namely whether Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the titular King, should open up his kingdom’s advanced technology (and curiously traditional) society to the world, with attendant risks like cultural contamination and involvement in international affairs (including wars). Or should they remain hidden while the ancestors of slaves suffer gross social injustice? This is something like substance in a Marvel series that’s usually jovial and inconsequential, and these themes, explicitly discussed, though with enough finesse to avoid arresting the plot with didacticism, lend the film much weight.
Coogler’s movie isn’t quite the break with formula some would have you believe. The novelty of an exotic location and the blessing of personality aside, this still has some familiar origin story beats – a primary antagonist that mirrors the hero but lacks his values, the development of a love interest between the Panther and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, the requisite setpiece fights and vehicular mayhem, and of course the tech. But the emphasis on identity politics and the social critique of White America, gives Coogler a little space to fashion something distinctive – a different flavour of Marvel movie if you will, with a great new taste, even if the ingredients are well known.
Black Panther may not be the most personable, or even the most interesting of Marvel’s heroes, but his debut solo movie is distinctive and as hard hitting as a film formulated for teenagers can be.
Given the importance now affixed to representation in mainstream cinema, and its prominence in debate, it’s likely the film’s formulaic elements will be forgotten. Coogler’s movie puts a black actor and supporting cast centre stage in one of the industry’s most lucrative franchises, and that’s a win for both the studio and audiences alike.