Before the advent of the expanded universe, I tended to judge superhero movies by their villain. This wasn’t something I did consciously. At some point, I just started to notice that my favorites tended to be the ones with the best villains — Spider-Man 2 with Dr. Octopus, Iron Man 3 with The Mandarin.
Now that I’m aware of it, it makes some sense. Heroes generally have to save the world, a motivation that’s pretty straightforward. It’s usually explained (where it even requires explaining) as some form of duty, protecting loved ones, a promise to a dead relative, or basic self-preservation. Hey, man, don’t destroy the Earth, my girlfriend lives here! Villains, meanwhile, generally have to try to kill the hero and/or his loved ones and/or destroy the world (and more often lately, the entire universe, or the very fabric of reality). Ridiculously inflated stakes aside, the villain’s impulse is generally less obvious, so unpacking it tends to take a little more explaining, and has the potential to go to more interesting places.
That is, sometimes. The expanded universe, which seems to be a way to cram in as many potentially toy-selling heroes into the same movie for maximum brand synergy (grr, tentpoles!), doesn’t leave much narrative space for a villain. Suicide Squad, more interesting as a failure than most of these movies are as a success, came close to taking this phenomenon to its logical conclusion, where the movie is just a sizzle reel of character introductions with no conflict. (After about 45 minutes of this, Suicide Squad caved and just became a regular superhero movie on fast forward.)
Marvel pioneered the algorithm for the expanded universe and has, more lately, just given us teams of charismatic, one-liner-spitting heroes battling… well, usually some immensely powerful blue or purple guy who wants to destroy the universe for some ill-defined reason. Maybe he just likes the dark, who cares f*ck you. This feels very American, by the way, to spend billions developing all this defensive firepower without bothering to worry about what it’s meant to defend against. We’ve been living in the asymmetrical warfare era of superhero movies!
Often this villain is assisted by a cabal of functionaries in black suits, and if white guys in smart suits driving black SUVs that flip onto their rooves at some point were ever added value in a superhero movie, they’ve long since ceased to be. Even in Thor: Ragnarok, which took the clever step of hiring a talented director with a fresh perspective — Taika Waititi — and was more or less as funny as any Marvel movie could be within the prefab skeleton of the plot proscribed by the expanded universe algorithm, it still had the heroes fighting a lame purple guy at the end. It co-opted the Waititi touch to make you root for the algorithm, basically.
For Black Panther, Marvel hired Ryan Coogler to direct, another inspired choice. You figure a guy who could breathe fresh air into a billionth Rocky movie of all things could make magic out of anything. Still, studios love putting a new hat on the same Malibu Stacy doll and awarding themselves a lifetime wokeness award for it. It was hard not to assume they’d use Coogler’s good name and the concept of a beloved black superhero to do the same with Black Panther. After all, this is the same company that only realized that a partnership with Northrup Grumman (which would’ve given Marvel a connection to the actual military-industrial complex) was a bad idea after people complained about it on Twitter. And just making Black Panther in the first place would’ve been enough of an incremental step forward to inoculate them from criticism. Why bother making it good?
At first Black Panther seems like the same ol’ superhero origin story, albeit dressed up with inspired production design and some of the most exciting new faces in Hollywood — Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Winston Duke (not to mention the classics like Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Sterling K. Brown). It sets up Andy Serkis’ character (Ulysses Klaue — pronounced “Claw”) as the villain, a wild-eyed South African with a tribal back tat, who’s at least an interesting twist on the white-guys-in-black-SUVs trope (even if Klaue does spend a lot of time driving around with white guys in black SUVs). In fact, it’s probably my favorite Andy Serkis performance (this coming from someone who thinks sullen, one-note, painfully earnest Caesar is far and away the worst part of the Planet of the Apes movies). So far, the film is still basically the same Marvel framework, dressed up nicely. But you suspect Joe Robert Cole’s script is saving something more. And boy is it.
With all due respect to the “Just shut off ur brain!” crowd (jk, f*ck those people), superhero movies are mostly only as interesting as their ideas (production design can only take one so far). Fistfights or rayguns or destroyed portals or exploding SUVs have a fairly low ceiling for compellingness, sans subtext. That was always the most interesting thing about X-Men, that it wasn’t just about good and evil and eating your vitamins or whatever, but that Magneto and Professor Xavier represented Malcolm X and MLK’s respective approaches to civil rights (early, pre-pilgrimage Malcolm X, anyway). It offered a somewhat nuanced conflict where you weren’t always sure which side to root for. Of course, it’s also a story where two fictional white guys personified the ideas of two real black guys, so there was clearly some room for improvement there. (And, as David Dennis puts it, “Characters just never talked about how being black and a mutant was different than being a white mutant.”)
Black Panther makes even that feel simplistic. It posits a world where Wakanda, a hidden nation in Africa, is secretly the most advanced civilization on Earth, this thanks to a massive deposit of vibranium, the world’s strongest metal (they used it to make Captain America’s shield!) and the source of all of Wakanda’s advanced technology. It’s a clever twist on the idea that geography is destiny, a concept familiar to anyone who’s read Guns, Germs, and Steel, whose basic thesis is that certain civilizations became dominant due to geographical advantages, like proximity to certain germs, metal deposits, and domesticable animals (as opposed to old ideas about some inherent genetic superiority). Black Panther succinctly sums up all that as “vibranium,” and flips it, imagining that a nation in Africa has been the secret geographic lottery winner all along.
That’s already an ingenious premise, and Cole and Coogler follow it to its logical conclusion, setting up arguably the most morally complex conflict of any superhero movie, not to mention finally giving us an interesting villain. The basic idea is, if Wakanda has been sitting on this transformative technology all along, how can they justify allowing the suffering of all those they could’ve helped? The central conflict is between protecting yours (in the form of the Wakandans keeping the secret of Wakanda) and sharing it with the less fortunate. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the Black Panther, has to battle a doppelganger in the final act, which is standard superhero stuff, from Superman II to Iron Man to the Incredible Hulk. But the real enemy is disunity. It’s an externalized battle between the two competing impulses, the impulse to hoard and the impulse to share, of selfishness vs altruism.
Without spoiling anything, it comes to a somewhat imperfect conclusion, albeit with a Michael B. Jordan speech that simultaneously made me want to well up with tears and run through a wall. But the fact that the whole movie turns on a question that’s so relevant, and delivered with such nuance, and by a Marvel movie, no less, is, frankly, shocking. It’s about as nuanced as can be while still coming to a satisfying, suitably superhero-y conclusion. As T’Challa explains in a closing speech, “Wise men build bridges, fools build barriers.” (Obvious reference to Donald Trump’s wall goes here.)
In that way, Black Panther is an “empowering story about race,” but it also goes beyond race — acknowledging that race exists, but is also an arbitrary construct. Black Panther has plenty of those old superhero movie elements, sure — the doppelganger fight, the black SUV skidding on its roof, the confusing shaky cam fight sequence — but those aren’t what I left the theater thinking about. I left thinking about how much Black Panther exemplified one of my favorite James Baldwin lines from I Am Not Your Negro: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”
Take out the racial descriptors and add Wakanda, and that’s pretty close to the premise of Black Panther. Where X-Men used white characters to espouse black leaders’ ideas, Black Panther ascribes the Wakandans a kind of privilege (they identify themselves with a special glowing tattoo). In so doing, it gets at the root of the very idea of “race” — that it was only ever a convenient excuse to hoard or steal, a rationalization of why any arbitrarily won or ill-gotten advancements were deserved — and exposes its faultiness as a concept.
So much fake empowerment these days, especially that peddled by corporations, consists of screaming the obvious at straw men — “women have rights!” “black people are people!” — which may feel necessary now that you can find any straw man with a simple Google or Twitter search, but it’s never been that entertaining to watch smart people scream at idiots (with all due respect to Aaron Sorkin). It’s fake catharsis without insight. Black Panther, using the fantastic to get at foundational truths, is the exceedingly rare work that actually explores James Baldwin’s why. You know when that happens because it feels like someone thinking and exploring, not just repeating. I cannot believe this is a Marvel movie.