Movie Review: Black Panther

Like Wonder Woman, it’s not really necessary for me to do a review of Marvel’s Black Panther. You already know about it, you already know it’s gotten great reviews, you’ve probably already seen it or decided you’re not going to see it anyway. So this “review” is going to be more a collection of thoughts.

Black Panther is a Marvel superhero movie, but rather than just being about the hero going through some personal growth while saving the world, there’s the additional interesting setting of Wakanda, a hidden country that’s decades ahead of the rest of the world technologically. Without spoilers, the villain’s also a little more interesting than just “wants to take over the world” or “revenge blown out of proportion for something that happened during their formative years”, though both of those certainly figure in.

But the real reason why Black Panther is special today is because nearly the entire cast is black, Wakanda is in Africa, and there’s commentary throughout on the geopolitics of colonialism, both explicit and implicit. And representation matters.

(One of the ways that representation matters is how it does not matter, which comes through with non-black audiences enjoying Black Panther too. Hopefully this leads to more movies marketed for the mainstream with non-majority-white casts, non-white leads.)

Personal take: even though I don’t really like superhero movies, I enjoyed Black Panther, and thought it was well-made. It still prioritizes action over actual depth, but it’s an action movie, and at least it has some depth. If you like superhero-style action movies, go for it. If you want to see black people casually kicking ass on screen, go for it. If you don’t like action movies at all…well, you probably won’t like it.

The rest of this post is going to be talking about various things from the movie, so spoilers ahoy.

Some loose short thoughts:

  • Shuri is great.

  • It seems really silly to have the head of state also be the strongest warrior/spy. I’m not even talking about the succession/challenge ceremony; it just seems like once you’re king you should stop going on missions, and delegate. (Then again, apparently T’Challa was in a previous Avengers movie when he was just a prince, so maybe that actually does happen once there’s someone you can delegate too. Still, though.)

  • Martin Freeman’s character really was unnecessary. M’Baku could have done that. Shuri could have done that, rather than going to fight with Nakia. Also, Agent Gibbs.

  • Speaking of M’Baku, I did not expect the name of Hanuman to make an appearance. I associate him with India and eastward, while Bast is at least Egyptian.

  • The movie manages to tell a lot of story without feeling too long; there’s a whole bunch that happens before Killmonger shows up at Wakanda, but that’s also clearly the turning point when things really get going. I want to give Coogler props for that. At the same time, though, there’s a bit of a sense that the whole Korea section was pointless, given that Killmonger showed up with Klaue anyway. Maybe I would have felt less mis-invested if I’d seen Age of Ultron where Klaue first appeared.

  • The action doesn’t actually seem that exciting? We’ve seen car chases before (though admittedly not with a remote driver). We’ve seen armies fight before. We’ve seen martial artist duels before. Honestly, the best “fight scene” was probably the first challenge.

  • I was never quite sure if the agents were called “War Dogs” or “Warthogs”.

  • I noticed that the airship’s speaking voice didn’t have a Wakandan accent. I guess Shuri picked up some open-source text-to-speech library rather than making her own?

I’d been avoiding discussion and analysis before watching the movie, and haven’t caught up on it yet, but most of it centers, unsurprisingly, around Erik Killmonger. In particular, I’ve seen a good amount of sentiment that Killmonger isn’t exactly wrong. Even the movie isn’t quite sure what to do about this; the second or third time we hear about Wakanda’s place in the world, it’s Nakia urging T’Challa to open their borders. Even if she and Killmonger have very different approaches, they both think that Wakanda needs to end its isolationist policy.

(T’Challa himself isn’t a very interesting character. He’s kind of just the handsome protagonist, except that Killmonger can steal the “handsome” crown when he’s not being creepy as heck. But Okoye is the one who gets to argue the other side reasonably, instead of just sounding overly traditionalist.)

I did have a moment where I thought “why doesn’t Wakanda help?” Not necessarily the whole world, but maybe just the countries around it in East Africa. But I managed to stop myself there, because after all why doesn’t the US help? Why don’t more countries in Europe help? The ones who actually occupied and pillaged the countries that are now poor? Wakanda doesn’t automatically owe anyone anything; if there’s a responsibility to be had, it lies elsewhere.

(I can’t decide how I want to interpret Shuri’s “colonizer”. It’s clearly a deliberate jibe and one she probably feels clever about, but is it because Ross is white? American? Specifically American government? Or did she know that it doesn’t obviously fit any one of those and that makes it better?)

So, is Killmonger’s plan wrong? Certainly the endpoint still sounded wrong: a Wakandan Empire of the entire world. But the rest of it? I don’t really want more weapons floating around, but this isn’t going to be giving the oppressed the ability to fight. With Wakanda’s superior tech, they will win.

I still can’t ever pick that route, and neither can the writers. So Killmonger loses by fiat. But there’s a sizable group out there that would say that sort of revolution would be a net benefit, and is deserved by those who “look like Erik” in situations of struggle and un-privilege around the world. Given my own privilege (white, American, upper-middle class), I’m not sure I can unbias myself. I would love for T’Challa’s outreach program to work, but good intentions haven’t quite been enough so far in the real world. So if we don’t want this to happen, we good-intention people should probably step up our game.

This section is all me rambling and veering close to various kinds of “dangerous thoughts”. For a more reasoned take and a pre-rebuttal, check out Adam Serwer’s “The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger” published in The Atlantic.

Another twist on this complaint is that the movie ended with Wakandans killing Wakandans, Africans killing Africans to protect a white-dominated world. (With insult added to injury by the white American CIA agent being given Wakandan tech to kill Wakandans.) It’s not that that’s automatically an issue, but in a movie that explicitly talks about colonialism and is at a meta level deliberately a movie providing black representation in film, it does feel…problematic. I can’t remember who I first saw bring this up (on Twitter; where else?) but it does seem like another case where there’s a clear arc and ending that comes from the superhero narrative, but that the injection of real-world context makes that arc feel flimsy and unsatisfying.

(Another way this happens that’s independent of geopolitics is how Killmonger gets a respectful last few minutes, but all the Wakandans he and others killed onscreen do not. Being a Named Character automatically means you get extra respect when you die. Also, were we really supposed to believe that that knife wound decisively ends the fight after everything we’ve seen both Killmonger and T’Challa go through up till now?)

On the other hand, someone pointed out that the final battle takes place on a literal underground railroad, and now that it’s been pointed out I can’t help but wonder what that’s supposed to mean. It fits the theme of talking about diaspora black liberation, but is there a message, or was it just Coogler being clever?

There’s also an interesting cultural thing that I know very little about: the interaction between Africans and African-Americans. That was a plot point in the movie, with Killmonger as an outsider vs. all of the Wakandans.1 But what does it mean outside? Do most African-Americans feel kinship with Kenyans, Tanzanians, Sudanese? How about vice versa?

I think there’s an America–Canada–UK–Australia–New-Zealand connection because of the semi-shared language and, yes, dominant white population. (Otherwise India would show up there as well.) But I don’t feel inherently connected to most European countries, save for the one that my (living) grandparent is from. Then again, it’s been noted over and over that the chance for that connection was taken from black Americans who can trace their ancestors back to slavery. (And I’m also ethnically Jewish, which adds an extra twist on all of this.)

Does it make sense for Killmonger to say “there are two billion people all over the world who look like us”? Yes, that’s in character for how black Americans talk about things. But the piece I don’t know: would Wakandans think the same way? That is, do Kenyans think this way? Ugandans? (Am I messing it all up by picking demonyms for countries that were also established by colonialism, rather than the groups that actually live there?)

Okay, that’s plenty of meandering thoughts. And I’m not knowledgeable about this, so that’s all they are. Please take them with a grain of salt…but I’m also interested in hearing what other people have to say!

(And I should probably go read some more of those analyses I’ve been skipping.)

  1. Yes, Killmonger is ethnically Wakandan. How much that matters is related to the rest of the section. ↩︎