Right, then – back to movies everyone’s seen so I don’t have to do so much summerizing. And glory be: it’s Black Panther. Some of us have been waiting for this since at least 1994, when Wesley Snipes first started talking about doing it. That fell through and he did Blade instead, so things still worked out…for awhile. Two of out three ain’t bad.
Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four #52, all the way back in 1966. His creation predates the founding of our world’s Black Panther Party by six months…though not it’s predecessor organization, the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Party, which also used a panther as their logo. Stan Lee always claimed the name had nothing to do with any then-current events and that it just came to him in a bolt of inspiration…but, then again, he says that about everything. And Lee did serve in WWII, where he could’ve reasonably seen any of the various unit patches with a panther on them, including my grandfather’s own fighter group, which I prefer for obvious reasons (like the fact their panther can breath fire).
Regardless, King T’Challa of Wakanda joined the Avengers in 1968, but didn’t get his own starring role until 1973, under the pin of Don McGregor, who finally laid the foundations of modern Black Panther stories. That’s where we first saw him really have to deal with the internal politics of Wakanda…and his Freudian Shadow, Erick Killmonger. (That shot of Killmonger throwing T’Challa off a cliff is right out of 1973’s Jungle Action #6) This is also when he got exiled back to America and fought the Klan…and where McGregor started doing something completely novel for the time: multi-issue story arcs. No mere two- or three-parters, but massive, sprawling tales…that could easily be collected into giant paperback volumes and sold at normal book stores as what we now call graphic novels.
The bad thing about multi-issue story arcs, though, is they read a lot better when you collect them. I’m all about patience, but expecting people to wait two and a half years for a story to wrap up isn’t something I’d call reasonable. (Everyone join with me for a second in giving Grant Morrison and Brian Michael Bendis the side-eye.) So sales were low and Black Panther’s solo series got canceled and restarted three times before the end of 70s. He bounced around for most of the ’80s and ’90s, getting a miniseries here, a guest-shot there. Nothing too high profile (despite doing things like fighting South African Apartheid) until 1998, when Christopher Priest took the reigns and Black Panther stories were, for lack of a better word, “modernized.” That’s where Okoye and Nakiya come in, along with Everett Ross. And that’s where Killmonger got his gold costume – the “Golden Jaguar,” I call it, since he’s an American cat.
Ever since, T’Challa slowly-but-surely grown into something like the Batman of his universe – the insanely rich, insanely tactical motherfucker with a cave full of wonderful toys…and the only noble on planet Earth whose parents raised him with a sense of nobles oblige. Except Batman doesn’t have a whole country at his back. That’s part of why I’m glad they didn’t do this in the 90s: any introduction to Black Panther would have almost no choice but to also introduce Wakanda. You might say, “Well, they could’ve pulled it off. All they would’ve had to do was make Wakanda a series of cool sets with cool matte paintings outside the windows.” Which they wound up pretty much doing anyway. But in response, I’d point to Spawn and Steel as cautionary tales of how easily 90s movies could – and did – fuck up black superhero stories. Even my beloved M.A.N.T.I.S. decayed as his TV show went on, faster than one of those elements at the bottom of the periodic table.
Given all that, it’s pretty easy to see why Disney/Marvel waited as long as they did, and still felt the need to sneak T’Challa into Captain America 3. They were paranoid about fucking him up and alienating the chunk of Marvel Maniacs who would love to see the Illuminati (yes, that’s what they actually called themselves) in live action.
And that’s the most charitable reading I can make of this whole situation. The uncharitable one is, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter is a crusty old racist asshole who constantly fucked with the movie studio until 2015, when studio-head Kevin Feige stopped talking to him and started reporting directly to Disney. Perlmutter’s (allegedly) the reason Don Cheedle replaced Terrance Howard between Iron Man 1 and 2, the reason Natasha hasn’t gotten her own movie yet, and the reason Carol Danvers has been sitting on the sidelines through two–and-a-half alien invasions and one robot apocalypse. And now Perlmutter’s running Veterans Affairs, along with three other billionaire walking corpses, on behalf of his fellow crusty, old-ass New York City racist, our president.
But hey…at least we finally got a Black Panther movie, right? Does its quality redeem the joyless slog that was Civil War…? Hell no. No more so than Homecoming. But it does (at last!) introduce Black Panther to a worldwide audience in a way that (mostly) avoids undermining his appeal. No longer will I have to school self-proclaimed hardcore comic book fans about who T’Challa is, using the dumbest analogies I can think up. (“He’s like Batman, if Batman were president and worshiped an ancient cat god.”) No longer will I have to choke back laughter at their dumbass follow-up questions like, “You mean there are cat gods in the Marvel Universe?” Not just any dip-shit cat god, pal – you are now rocking with Bast, goddess of motherhood and war, who gets ya coming and going. Besides, people have been watching the Norse pantheon’s fucked-up family drama since at least 2011. Are the Nile River Valley gods really that much of a stretch…?
As with Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther is the story of a young monarch figuring out how to rule a nation and grapple with the fact his dad wasn’t the paragon of masculine virtue he always thought. He spends the entire movie dealing with the consequences of some evil shit his dad pulled back in the day, which have come back to bite everyone in the ass, in the form of a secret family member. He eventually overcomes these consequences, not so much by force of arms (though that helps), but by utilizing knowledge of the homeland that his secret family member does not – and cannot – posses.
This is an evolution from Phase One of the MCU, where being a hero meant (as Jessica Jones’ mom said, recently) being someone “who gives a shit and does something about it.” Begging the question, “gives a shit about…what, exactly?” Well, how about the place you live? But to really give a shit about a place, you have to know it – it’s high-highs and its low-lows. Its thoroughfares and its secret passages. What it keeps hidden up in the mountains and deep down in the vaults. And if you want to rule a place, you have the play the game of thrones and find some way to balance all the competing interests that place contains. But while Thor 3 talked about imperialism (or, at the very least, brought it up for the first time since…gods, Iron Man 1…?), Black Panther brings up the consequences of isolationism.
Not the fake kind of isolationism we Americans like to pretend we had once, ignoring the fact we’ve had an empire for over a hundred years. (Ask Cuba, or the Philippines, or Puerto Rico about that shit sometime.) Not even true isolationism, since that was already impossible in a world so full of empires, even before they got satellites. Wakanda’s is a bit more of an active isolationism. The entire country has a secret identity, disguised as a mild-mannered, tiny kingdom of farmers and shepherds, concealing their literal mountain of advanced technology, made from metal so precious it makes coltan look like copper.
Of course, they still deploy spies all over the world, and once you do that, there’s always the chance your spies will start arming the locals. Instead of getting a promotion for that (or a slap on the wrist, a pardon from the head of state, and a lifetime of cushy jobs doing talk radio and consulting for shitty video games) Prince N’Jobu dies by his brother’s hand…leaving a son to take up his cause…or what he thinks was his father’s cause…
The day Zemo bombed Vienna must’ve been the second-worst day of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens’ life. Imagine – you spend years fantasizing about killing the guy who killed your dad – doing all kinds of army shit, and all kinds of mercenary shit – training yourself to your physical peak, watching your target get old and slow…aching for the day when you can finally stand before him and declare, “You killed my father, prepare to die…” and then some jumped-up Colonel from an equally-fictional country blows him up before you can even get in the same time-zone. Anti-climax much? I’m amazed Killmonger’s not madder about that…but then again, he has the focus and the drive. He’s made a plan and he follows through…which leads us to the dumbest question this movie inspired, post-release: was Killmonger right?
Of course fucking not. He’s too American to be right, and his Evil Plan amounts to little more than the last forty years of neo-conservative foreign policy, set to Ludicrous Speed. Yeah – go off king – send a bunch of high tech weapons to random people all over the world. I’m sure they’ll eternally love you for it. There’s no chance they could ever turn those weapons against you and your new Empire. Nope. Never happened before in the history of… Oh, no – what are all these shots from Rambo 3 doing here?
I’m sorry, I know Killmonger means well – he just didn’t think it through. His whole life was about getting to Wakanda and he never planned past that, except in the vaguest of terms. His vision, after he drinks the plant juice that gives members of his family panther powers, shows this explicitly. When cousin T’Challa drinks it, he winds up in a grassy plain, with a tree full of all the past Panthers gathered in celebration of their descendent. When Killmonger drinks it, he winds up back in that spacious Oakland apartment, with his dead dad on the floor. He’s always there. He never left, no matter how far he went or how many people he killed. That apartment is his Crime Alley…or his sidewalk across from the wrestling venue, to use an in-universe analog.
And this is why he instantly became everyone’s favorite Marvel Universe villain. (Along with the fact he’s played by the second Johnny Storm – in a row – that Marvel’s rescued from an abysmal, 20th Century Fox Fantastic Four movie.) Not that the competition’s all that stiff…Still, it’s another aspect of that thing I keep harping on whenever I get the chance: how we all want to be villains now, because villains have concrete motivations and actual plans…most of the time…Stupid and short-sighted though they are, they’re better than the status quo, which most heroes have a bad reputation of propping up.
This despite the fact a hero’s very existence represents a break from the status quo…as with T’Challa, here. His dad got schwacked by a random asshole who wanted to destroy the Avengers and now he has to figure out how to rule a country. “Surround yourself with people you trust,” his father’s ghost says on the ancestral plain. So T’Challa asks his ex-love and current-spy, Nakia, who’s been around the world and seen some shit (when we first meet her, she’s working the slave-trade beat in Nigeria) so she’s all about revealing Wakanda to the wider world and offering as much humanitarian aid as possible. T’Challa’s BFF, Wakabi, isn’t down with that, but he’s all for fucking some shit up.
And that’s about it for the movie’s exploration of internal Wakanda politics. Sure, you’ve got your miners, your fishers, your ruling class, and your merchants who (I’m sure) consider themselves the glue holding everyone else together, but who cares? You’ve also got your antisocial mountain people who are all about woodworking (a.k.a., my people) in the Jabari, and they have slightly more to do. And through W’kabi, we see the border guards (as is true of border guards everywhere) are slightly more militaristic than average, making them much more susceptible to charismatic assholes with grand visions and dumbass plans. This prompts them to sign on with Killmonger and cause a one-day Civil War that’s much more interesting than the last one this Universe saw…but that’s not saying much.
Wakanda does have an interesting social structure now that forty years worth of people have come along to add to it, and I’m a little sad no one thought of a way to explore it all that didn’t involve choosing sides for a Climactic Battle. Plus Ulysses Klaue killed W’kabi’s dad way back when – probably while stealing the vibranium Ultron eventually stole from him. So I can kind of see him aligning with a nameless dude who walks out of the forest with Klaue’s body in tow…But on the other hand, once a power struggle breaks out, what kind of guy goes with the complete unknown over the best friend he supposedly grew up with? “No man is perfect,” Nakia tells our hero. She’s talking about his dad, but the same could apply to his friends as well.
Right quick, because I don’t know where else to put this: Andy Serkis’ Klaue is a real treasure. I get the same hit off of him that I got off Goldblum’s Grandmaster – watching an actor have so much fun, I want to call the CDC and report a new communicable disease. Anyone else might’ve retired after they lost an arm to, and got a phat payday from, Ultron, but this guy obviously loves the black-market-mercenary-arms-dealer life way too much. I was surprised to find myself actually sad to see him die…but it’s better to leave us wanting more.
See, everybody around T’Challa has a better conflict than he does. “Oh, your dad was a secret asshole? Well, join the fucking club with the rest of us!” “Oh, you’ve got a whole country to rule over? Hang on – let me play you a sad song on the world’s smallest violin.” Versus, say, General Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje – sworn to protect and obey whichever dumbass is currently warming the throne, because once the military starts deciding not to serve kings they don’t like, before you know it you’ll wake up in a Western Roman Empire type situation, and those never work out well in the long run. Or Nakia, who probably thought she was living that swingin’ spy-fi life, having a fling with the crown prince in between bouts of world-travel…but now he’s the king, Bast help us all. Or M’Baku, head of the Jabari, facing the latest in a long line of pretentious cat-people who pay lip service to tradition, even while they shit all over it…And praise be to Humaman (though not, oddly enough, any of the African ape deities, like Ghekre or A’ani), they give M’Baku a goddamn Han Solo moment. As if you’re not gonna show up to the Climactic Battle at the eleventh hour, dude. Whatever. I half expected him to ask T’Challa to join them up in the mountains and say, “You’re pretty good in a fight – we could use you.”
Probably-too-many pages ago I said this movie “introduce[d] Black Panther to a worldwide audience in a way that (mostly) avoids undermining his appeal” and now it’s time to talk about the “mostly.” One of the problems with becoming your universe’s Batman is you eventually gather an obsessive fanbase that will not tolerate seeing you go through a narrative arc, never mind any kind of real struggle. You’re supposed to be the omni-competant every-hero who can take down anyone if you have enough prep-time. The last thing the most psycho contingent of your fanbase wants is to watch you grow into that from a starting point as some kind of insecure young man (or jaded, drunken, bastardly old man, for that matter). Especially if they haven’t had to do it as often as we Bat-fans. (Marvel is still, thankfully, less obsessed with reboots than their Distinguished Competition.) Don’t speak to people of this movie’s already-greenlit sequel. They want their mature Black Panther on screen right now, because all they have to do to see him is check one of his collected runs out of any library, or steal it form any Barns & Noble.
Their need obscures the true problems with this movie – like how it was obviously rushed out to prepare the ground for That Other War. Hence the obvious, and obviously-unpolished, CGI – especially in the Climactic Battle. I get why they did it. Only a pack of fools would miss the chance to put the first Black Panther movie out during Black History Month. We can only hope that Disney/Marvel will let their newest hero (and his supporting cast) grow and thrive without interrupting that growth for a big, dumb crossover event every other year…
Oh, who am I kidding? I wish you all good fortune in the Infinity Wars to come.