When Marvel introduced T’challa/Black Panther into the MCU in Captain America: Civil War there was excitement and an undeniable expectation for the character’s solo movie. From the get-go the character had a built in sympathy and purpose (his father’s death is the inciting incident in Civil War), but with Ryan Coogler’s film the character moves beyond the simplistic revenge motivation and creates something socially transcendent.
To start, this is the first time we have an MCU film set on Earth that genuinely feels like a mixture of the real world and magical realism. The fictional nation of Wakanda is brought to life in a way that elevates the story and highlights the metaphor of isolationism. Hiding beneath the stereotype of the “poor, third-world African country”, these people have lived for generations in a literal bubble of tradition and technological and intellectual superiority to the rest of the world because they fear what the rest of the world would do if they discovered the truth about Wakanda.
The political aspects are undeniable. The film plays both sides of the coin very well and subtly lays out arguments both for and against. The people of Wakanda are content to stay hidden and protect themselves only when necessary, a policy of non-intervention that bears evil fruit in the form of the villain, Erik Killmonger (the magnetic Michael B. Jordan). I’ve seen people compare him to the greatest villain the MCU has spawned thus far, Loki, in that they both have purpose and pathos. It doesn’t hurt that both of these villains are played by exceptional actors, but there is a point to be made for Killmonger as a force of representation.
His story isn’t unlike that of Loki’s (family betrayal and a vengeance to claim what is his), but where Loki is pure pathos, Killmonger integrates ethos as well. He represents not only black culture in America, but also the oppressed around the world. This representation is the core of the film and lays out the true conflict of the story. Sure, there is a a battle for the throne of Wakanda that is thrilling and intense, but that isn’t where the film excels.
The film excels because the battle for Wakanda is essentially a battle of ideologies. On one side is the traditionalism that ignores the plight of other cultures, a side which is content to feed itself and hide in its gloriousness. On the other side is those who have been left behind by those with the power to help, those that are neglected in the face of their struggle and who lack the choice those in power have the luxury of ignoring.
If there’s any gripe I would have with the movie it would be the brutally militant nature of Killmonger that borders on extremism. He has become a monster and his brutality knows no limits, but the human moments we see with this character perfectly demonstrate the circumstances which has created this man, and in a sense, an entire culture. Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa has the task of having to realize the responsibility a country like Wakanda has in creating such a culture, and it is through his encounter with what Killmonger represents that he comes to a point of social transcendence.
This isn’t conceptually new in terms of the MCU. At the end of Iron Man Tony Stark makes the decision to shoulder the responsibility he has thus far ignored by telling the world he is Iron Man. His decision to take up the position of Iron Man and atone for past mistakes mirrors the realization T’Challa must come to, but Tony Stark’s realization is pure ego and thus carries only a microcosm of the power T’Challa takes on. Tony Stark represents himself and only himself, whereas Black Panther represents an entire culture.
I think it’s fun to note that very little of Black Panther is about what the character is able to do physically. Sure, the James Bond stuff is there and upfront with the tech and gadgetry and there is a fair share of fighting (which I would argue is not the best feature of the film), but Ryan Coogler is more interested in what power the character has on a social and global scale. Think about each MCU installment thus far and the majority of the story includes the abilities of the characters in a physical sense, wherein there is either a fear of the character’s power (The Incredible Hulk) or the character grapples with the meaning of their physical strengths (Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor). It wasn’t until Civil War that the concept of the societal effects of these physical powers was even manifested in a narrative sense.
And now we have a story about an African nation, believed to be poor and unimportant by the rest of the world, that assumes the burden of the socially oppressed in a way that Iron Man or Captain America could never do. This power elevates the narrative to heights that no other character could achieve. And when T’Challa cracks that wry smile at the end of the movie, I believe even Tony Stark had to bow to the King.