I do, and always will, love Marvel movies.
Ever since my introduction to Iron Man 2 just a few years back, the studio’s many works of superheroian shenanigans have been among my favourites. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen them all so many times; I’m always happy to watch them again.
Every now and again, Marvel likes to throw unexpected heroes into the mix. The first experiment, with the vaguely niche Guardians of the Galaxy, went over so well that they actually became a pseudo-flagship for the comic brand’s movie franchise.
Now, just a few months before Thanos touches down in Infinity War, Marvel is doing it again.
If you haven’t seen it yet, stop what you’re doing, go see it, and then pick up reading again at this point. There be spoilers ahead.
Meet the Black Panther
This is actually the third time we’ve seen references to the Black Panther story in the MCU.
We got our first look at it when the world (or at least one city) came crashing down in Age of Ultron. T’Challa didn’t have a very big role in that film; all we got was a quick look at a file on Ulysses Klaue, who was reportedly hired to assassinate T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka.
It got a little more serious when we got to Civil War.
As you may recall, that film opens with the discussion around the Sokovia Accords and the devastation that seemed to follow the Avengers wherever they went. Remember that man who was killed in the explosion at the UN during the discussions for the Accords?
Well, that was T’Chaka.
His death left T’Challa with the task of leading his people, the name of Black Panther, and a chip on his shoulder to rival Bruce Wayne.
T’Challa then made another, much more active appearance later on in the film, garbed in his full Black Panther glory. His suit was lined with vibranium, the rare metal that makes up Cap’s shield (which, if you recall, was said by Howard Stark to contain all the vibranium in the world).
The Wakandans sure had us fooled.
The making of a movie
Now, instead of cameos, T’Challa is getting his own full-length feature film. This is the first time he’s appeared on the big screen, despite being a solid presence in Marvel comics and animated TV shows since 1966.
I’m honestly a little surprised he didn’t have his own movie sooner, but in this case, it was well worth the wait.
The film does a good job of taking the tidbits of his origins that we’ve seen so far and stitching them together into a powerful tale that addresses issues that may be pretty close to home.
If you aren’t familiar with the Black Panther’s story (which, to be entirely honest, I wasn’t), he’s the king of Wakanda, a fictional country in Africa that’s believed by the world to be destitute.
That really couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Wakanda is essentially what would happen if Tony Stark ever tried to imagine what heaven would look like. It’s considered the most technologically advanced country in the world, and it’s absolutely beautiful to boot.
Although on top, Wakanda may appear to be nothing much to look at, beneath the holograms, it’s a modern city that blends perfectly with tradition. Everything about Wakandan culture is a blend of top-of-the-line technology and colourful, intricate patterns and designs that speak to its proud heritage and history.
A surprise star (or two)
As much as I loved T’Challa and his cool manner, credit has to be given to his supporting cast. The majority of the supporting characters are women who have all the toughness and strength of Diana Prince’s Amazonian sisters.
The first you meet is Okoye, the general of the Wakandan army. She is best described as a grade-A badass. In several parts of the film, you see her whirling her spear around like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s amusing how well she can predict exactly what will happen when her king goes on a mission.
However, it’s his sister, Shuri, who really steals the show. For me, at least.
See, T’Challa may be the king of the country, but when it comes to technology, Shuri is king. She rules the labs, playing a perfect Q to his Bond with a little-sister wit you really can’t ignore. She even plays an Alfred-style support character for her big brother, virtually piloting cars around foreign streets from her lab in Wakanda so he can focus on being his panther self.
Thinking outside the box
One of the reasons I was so excited about this movie is that it takes a big step outside of Marvel’s comfort zone in terms of movies.
How does it do that? Well, for starters, the Black Panther is the first mainstream, central character we’ve seen on the MCU big screen who isn’t American.
Sure, we’ve seen all kinds of different supporting characters, from conditioned Russian assassins to the gifted Sokovian twins and even an interesting range of space creatures, but when you look at the main, have-their-own-movies characters, every single one of them is American.
In fact, I think the closest Marvel has come so far to expanding beyond this trope in the MCU was with the short-lived TV series about Agent Peggy Carter, Cap’s British love interest from his first film. It only lasted for two seasons and a grand total of 18 episodes that punctuated the plotlines in Agents of SHIELD.
Now, before I go on, I want to make it very clear here that I am not hating on Americans. Some of the nicest people I have ever met are from that country.
But think about it this way.
It’s only natural for people to want to help their own country when, say, giant space whales carrying alien troops descend from a wiggly portal in the sky.
But what debt does a man from a hidden African country with no wiggly portals or space whales owe to a world that hasn’t done him any favours?
This is the core issue behind T’Challa’s struggle in this film. Historically, his people have hidden their technology away from potential abuse, and he believes he owes it to them to keep up with tradition.
But when he sees people around the world suffering from things like poverty, injustice, and inequality, things that his people solved long ago, he struggles with whether he should help—and what it will mean for his people if he does.
Not the first issue
Now, I’m just going to put this out there. I don’t really like getting tied up in racial, ethnic, or political debates, because I feel like they always end up with circular logic and no one ever leaves those debates happy.
Although it can be a little pointed at times, I think this film did a good job of addressing some difficult topics in today’s society in a way that’s easy to digest, without over-simplifying the issue. How can you leave people to suffer, knowing you have the means to help?
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Marvel take on this sort of implicit moral issue.
Remember when Tony struggled with the idea that his family made all its money by sowing death and destruction in the Middle East?
Or when Steve Rogers realized that he was just a channel for propaganda, while the soldiers fighting the war suffered?
Or when Thor realized that the peaceful kingdom he loved was built on lies and violence, and he would have to watch it burn?
These are all issues that affect the real world in very real ways, and it’s one of the reasons I love Marvel’s films so much. It’s also why I hope Marvel will continue to push the status quo, as it did with Black Panther.