We all knew it was coming. Months of hype paid off as Black Panther smashed records this holiday weekend and quickly established itself as a tour de force within the Marvel cinematic universe. Tuesday night I contributed a modest $5 to the $400+ million it’s made worldwide and honestly? That film was worth every penny + popcorn and soda. It really is true what Irving Berlin said back in the 40s: Anything you can do, I can do better.
In all seriousness though, it almost looks as if Black Panther deliberately went out of its way to upstage every other Marvel/DC film----and it damn well paid off. Black Panther combines the action we should have gotten in Batman vs. Superman with the humorous, sibling rivalry of Thor: Ragnarok. It gives us T'Challa, already the king that it took Thor three movies to become, wearing a suit that doesn't fall apart in the heat of battle like Tony's often does, a more interesting rich boy than Batman could ever hope to be.
We get a civil war that's actually a heart-pounding spectacle rather than a handful of miscommunicating assholes throwing punches in an airport parking lot. And----certainly notable----the film contains a progressive narrative without shoe-horning in any white-male protagonists Just Because. That is, it didn't escape my notice that our white villain Klaue is murdered early on to make way for the staggeringly better Erik Killmonger. When was the last time we got a reversal like that? Even Ross is handled well. Rather than playing a White Boy Savior his presence serves to continually remind us of how little power he has in Wakanda. None at all, really. His heroism in saving Nakia is severely downplayed (not even shown on screen----or if it was I missed it given that T'Challa was doing something cool at the time) and then it's only thanks to the Wakandans’ tech and trust that he survives at all. Waking up Ross is schooled by a sixteen-year-old, gets called "colonizer," is refused a voice in proceedings that he is not a part of, is made to turn away during a private family moment, and the only time he adopts their culture is when it is gifted to him: decorative scarves to keep warm on the run, permission to do the Wakandan salute only as a means of giving his ship a command. It's important that we don't have an end scene of Ross repeating that salute with everyone fondly rolling their eyes. A cultural marker like that isn't a joke and Ross, for all his assistance in battle, is still an outsider.
I could talk about how Black Panther has a cast of women that puts every other superhero film to shame—yes, even Wonder Woman. Nakia and Okoye are the sort of well-rounded role models that we need far more of in media. They’re allowed to be people in this film, with vulnerability as well as strength; more agency than most audience members will know what to do with. They might not have the power of the black panther or the status of a king, but they’re undoubtedly the leaders here, with Nakia allowed to call T’Challa out for ruining her mission, insisting that she remain in charge of her own destiny. Okoye is unapologetically labeled the strongest of them all, a whole legion of women warriors as her subordinates. And of course Ramonda acts as Queen Mother after T’Chaka’s death, keeping a level head through all the film’s hardships. No woman is reduced to a romantic plot device. Hell, Okoye says straight out that she will not compromise her morals for any man, telling her lover that she will kill him to save her country. It says just as much that he believes her, throwing down his sword when faced with the idea of fighting her hand-to-hand. She complains about having to wear a wig to meet certain standards of beauty; how guns are “so primitive” compared to her spear. Nakia takes her heels off and chucks them at an opponent because someone FINALLY acknowledges that you really can’t fight in those.
It’s all sorts of wonderful.
Sixteen-year-old Shuri is the real star of the film though, making Peter Parker look like an average teen as she heads the development of all Wakanda’s technology.
It's revealing that the country favors skill over age and the only one who challenges Shuri’s position is the mountain tribe’s leader, another outsider. She’s also one of the few characters in science fiction who’s allowed to make use of her own inventions, to be a scientist and a warrior. Years ago I wrote about how rare a film Pacific Rim is, for many reasons, but including its willingness to let Newt and Hermann do more than just stand on the sidelines, yelling their knowledge while Real Action Men save the day. Shuri joins their ranks by both driving her virtual car in an epic chase and later picking up a weapon to join in the final fight. After all, who better to handle this weaponry than the woman who conceived, built, and maintains it?
Even as she excels though Shuri is still allowed to act like a kid. At no point does Black Panther turn her cold or "bitchy" because of her intelligence. The film's most entertaining moments stem from her playful humor, gleefully telling T'Challa that she's invented shoes that absorb sound----called sneakers----and recording him getting his ass kicked from a blast of kinetic energy. His indignant "Delete that footage!" and Shuri's laughter is just the sort of healthy, humanizing relationship that people deserve to see in a blockbuster.
Black Panther is a film that merges tradition with advancement, looks to the future while still acknowledging the past, gives us a diverse cast that is the very definition of black excellence. During one of the later battles T'Challa heroically throws himself onto a grenade, reminding me instantly of Steve Rogers doing the same in Captain America... except T'Challa's grenade is actually armed and his suit absorbs the blast, allowing him to save lives and get right back to the fighting. This is not a film that sacrifices black lives. In fact, the only one we lose is Erik himself, our villain, and that is a choice. T'Challa gives him the option to live, but Erik believes what his ancestors once did: death is better than bondage.
Black Panther really doesn't pull any punches.
And if all that weren't enough, Black Panther even gives us two post-credit scenes instead of the usual one. I don't know what fools are living in 2018 and still leaving early after a Marvel film, but be sure to stick around to the very end. That first post-credits scene is so wonderfully satisfying, but it's the second that starts tying things together, opening up new doors along the way. Black Panther (with some excellent help from Thor) has finally made Marvel interesting again and I can't wait to see where it takes us.