There is so much to adore about Black Panther that it’s easy for any piece about the movie to become a love letter to Ryan Coogler’s epic vision of Black empowerment. The costuming, the actors (Winston Duke out here proving thick thighs save lives), the writing: it’s all first class (not to be confused with X-Men: First Class, which is first class in name only). Black Panther is a near-perfect superhero movie, one that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate in its incredible detail and nuance. And more than a great origin story, Black Panther also works as a jumping off point to open up conversations about equality and the legacy of colonialism. Can a movie full of Bugatti spaceships and magical power necklaces really be the venue to spark deep discussions about African colonization and the legacy of chattel slavery in the Western world? You’d better believe it.
That might seem incredible if this wasn’t already the Marvel brand.
Black Panther has launched a million think pieces, from ruminations on the Black diaspora in The Atlantic to Bossip’s editorial about the inherent misogyny in Erik Killmonger’s characterization. Black Panther provokes reflection and develops its characters and story through the lens of social commentary. And while some may see that as a new twist in a Marvel movie, (right now fanboys have their favorite track “Ugh, Don’t Make It About Social Justice Just Give Me a Great Story, Bro” on loop) this discussion of deeper social issues has been part of the fabric of Marvel’s films for quite some time.
Marvel has been quietly baking concern with equality and the social good into its movies since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with 2008’s Iron Man. Black Panther isn’t a deviation from that path. If anything, it is a perfect distillation of the Marvel brand: a quirky superhero action movie that asks complicated questions about our humanity and our larger moral responsibility. It’s an approach that, when it works, works extremely well. And when it doesn’t, it is the actual definition of a hot mess.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Black Panther is asking some big questions of both its viewers and its characters. Questions about the obligation of developed nations to help their less affluent neighbors, about the legacy of colonialism (brilliantly encapsulated in a museum scene in which the antagonist asks about the African artifacts on display), and about the legacy of the Middle Passage and the African diaspora drive the action and the plot. There is never a moment where viewers aren’t asked to think beyond the events on the screen and to consider the injustices of colonialism or the modern day impact of slavery. It’s a philosophical conversation often heard in academic and social justice circles, the question of whether it is better to dismantle white supremacy — also known as the master’s house — with the tools of the master or by developing new tools. Now, thanks to Black Panther, this conversation has found itself journeying down new avenues, widening the dialogue in meaningful ways. Marvel using such a fraught issue to build a movie might seem risky, unless you happen to look critically at other entries in the MCU.