With huge box office receipts and more records being broken by the minute, it’s safe to say that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has been a huge hit for Marvel Studios. Why? Well, because the King of Wakanda’s first solo movie is one of huge cultural significance.
Sure, part of Black Panther’s success is because it’s an entertaining and crowd-pleasing addition to an already successful franchise. But it’s also, so far, the only movie out of the current superhero trend with a black lead and cast, and it really gets to grips with the themes of black identity. Alongside its talk of vibranium and heart-shaped herbs, the film sensitively explores race relations in America, and the effects of colonialism.
Black Panther has remained in the conversation because it’s a fresh and unique voice within the current crop of caped crusaders. However, the film still manages to join a pervading conversation that an increasing amount of superhero movies are engaging in. So, with that in mind, read on and explore with us how the spinoff continues to deconstruct the genre.
The Trouble With T’Chaka
Following its outline of Wakanda’s history, Black Panther begins with a flashback to T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, in his prime. The previous king and Black Panther appears and reprimands his younger brother, N’Jobu, for his theft of vibranium, before the film cuts back to the present day.
Bearded and benevolent, T’Chaka was first introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War. Prior to his death, he briefly appears as a warm and principled mentor. Thanks to actor John Kani, T’Chaka has a stoic and likable presence. Indeed, even characters who are opposed to him (such as Zemo) admit that he “seemed a good man.”
As a result, there’s a definite sense of loss during the first third of Black Panther, especially when T’Chaka appears in his son’s visions. Yet for the rest of the film, we’re presented with another, darker side to T’Chaka.
Through two more flashbacks, it’s revealed that T’Chaka’s ardent preservation of Wakanda’s secrecy came with a heavy cost. N’Jobu had become sympathetic to the plight of oppressed black people around the world and sought to end it by supplying them with vibranium weapons. T’Chaka subsequently murdered his brother and abandoned his nephew to maintain the lie.
This act comes back to haunt his country in later years through the machinations of Eric Killmonger, N’Jobu’s son, who seethes over Wakanda’s indifference towards the outside world. Moreover, whilst T’Chaka was a powerful figure in drafting the Sokovia Accords in Civil War, Black Panther similarly forces us to reconsider his seemingly altruistic actions. T’Chaka’s mission to regulate the Avengers may indeed derive from the Lagos incident – and his sense of charity. Yet in light of the Killmonger and N’Jobu case, we can now surmise that T’Chaka was merely trying to muzzle Earth’s Mightiest Heroes from exposing his nation’s secrets.
T’Chaka was clearly a respected leader and loved one to Wakanda and its denizens. But Black Panther takes great pains to point out the flaws and mistakes of his character. In this way, the film asks us to reconsider ideas about the nature of legacy and nostalgia. And Black Panther isn’t the only movie to be doing this.
The Shocking Secrets Uncovered By Our Superheroes
Thor: Ragnarok is assuredly one of Marvel’s wackiest and wittiest films. But like T’Challa in Black Panther, Ragnarok sees Thor, another royal family member, being forced to confront dark truths about his realm’s past.
Whilst Wakanda’s darkness comes from its avoidance of colonization, and the preservation of their culture, Asgard is the antithesis of this. Asgard’s warmongering was only hinted at in previous films, but thanks to Hela, we discover the full extent of their savagery. The Realm Eternal enforced its bloodthirsty rule upon the cosmos and looted those whom it conquered. Then, when Odin had a change of heart, he re-branded Asgard as a benevolent institution. Moreover, he quite literally, in the case of that mural – painted over the truth. As it is with T’Chaka, Odin wasn’t always the kindly king that he’s been shown to be.
This preoccupation with re-addressing our fondness for the past isn’t bound to empires, either. We only need to look at the relationship between Star-Lord and Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to see this played out in a different form.
Though Peter Quill is not without his mommy issues, the Guardians series sees him try to be a certain type of “ideal” man. Prior to the last decade, the ideal kind of masculinity would probably align with the stereotype of the 1970s-80’s action hero. He’d be a hunky maverick. The kind of man who hooks up with a series of women, enforcing morality as they see fit, and causing mayhem as they please. Quill supposes – and hopes – that his father was this sort of dashing figure.
In Vol.2, he discovers that Ego embodies all of those traits – he’s portrayed by action icon Kurt Russell, no less. But Ego’s rugged and reassuring avatar is hollow, and belies the extremity of these attributes. The celestial is a twisted, immoral soul, whose charms and sexual conquests were used so that he may dominate all reality.
Similarly, Wonder Woman finds Diana being devastated by harsh truths, which undercut all that she’s been told since childhood. It’s hard enough for her to hear that she’s Zeus’s daughter, and the God-Killer too. But the worst epiphany is that Ares wasn’t the corrupter of humanity. He merely cultivated the darkness that was already there.
“Let The Past Die.”
It must be mentioned that superheroes aren’t the gatekeepers of this preoccupation with nostalgia and hard truths. The last year alone has seen Ernesto de la Cruz and Luke Skywalker being deconstructed throughout Coco and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Through the runtime of these movies, the respective evils and flaws behind the reputations of these characters are aired for all to see.
This isn’t to say that this batch of cinematic epiphanies is a new development. In every movie or novel the fictional status quo always changes to some extent through the course of the narrative. And there are plenty of cases throughout movie history where heroes uncover lies to find nasty truths, such as Luke’s discovery of Darth Vader’s identity in The Empire Strikes Back.
Indeed, twists like these are very useful for filmmakers. These revelations may be small but they can help ensure a movie’s narrative is compelling. Forcing a hero to confront nuances and falsehoods in structures that they hold dear is a quick and effective way to define what kind of characters they are.
Certainly, we learn about T’Challa’s wisdom after his confidence in his nation’s traditions is shaken. Plus, these rug-pulls create talking points for audiences to discuss long after seeing a film, making them – and other potential customers – more likely to re-watch it.
Yet, given that superheroes are the dominant cinematic genre nowadays, it’s still very interesting that so many of these films are appalled by revelations about the past, or their traditions. Why could this be?
“He’s A Monster Of Our Own Making. I Must Right This Wrong.”
In many of these recent, aforementioned movies, the hero tends to disavow – or allow the destruction of – the past in some way. Case in point: Asgard’s annihilation or Wakanda’s revised foreign policy. The issue of nostalgia vs. the new becomes more intriguing when we consider that, before 2014, critics were increasingly discussing the conservatism of superhero movies.
The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man and The Avengers all saw their heroes discover faults within their societies. However, these characters still fought to protect their respective arenas from outside threats. In newer films, we find Captain America destroying corrupt intelligence agencies wholesale, and Black Panther screaming “You were wrong,” at his predeceasing kings.
It’s hard to explain just why this is occurring, thought it could be these movies are reflecting the current American mood. It’s a well known fact that art has always done this, and cinema is no exception to this rule. Following 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war, Hollywood was filled with heroes like Jason Bourne: wide-eyed, brooding, disorientated people who struggled to battle onward after recent traumas.
These characters then evolved into the more reassuring fare of the superhero movie. Though these films still revolved around tormented individuals, they offered the escapism of wisecracks, colorful adventures and a more easily palatable sense of morality. So, what stage are we at now?
The Future Of Superhero Movies
Though it’s difficult to be fully specific because of our proximity to these films and times, we can easily compare the uneasy truths that our superheroes have faced to many of our own. The realization that there weren’t nuclear weapons in Iraq. The release of damaging, classified documents from WikiLeaks. The recent scandals involving some of our favorite figures in the film industry. All of these cases have cast their respective institutions and members in a decidedly dubious light. We ask: how can we trust them now? And, were they always so?
Coupled with this are certain groups and individuals looking to emulate the past and “make things great again” in the face of new threats and challenges. Therefore, with plots such as Wakanda’s murderous enforcement of lies, Asgard’s colonization of the stars and Ego’s insidious masculinity, superhero movies seem to be asking some pertinent questions. Is our nostalgia – our love of conventions and institutions – truly justified? Based on their experiences, T’Challa, Thor and maybe even Star-Lord would probably argue not.
Moreover, the way in which Black Panther and his fellow heroes hold their traditional centers of power to a greater degree of accountability is very significant. T’Challa’s respect for some Wakandan traditions – and his rejection of outmoded ones – is a reflection of how we’re currently re-conceptualizing Western culture and society.
Superheroes have long fought to progress social justice in the pages of their comics. The newest batch of movies takes this fight one step further – to the problematic sources within our mindsets and the establishment. The superhero genre is already set to continue for some time. Therefore, in the wake of Black Panther’s success, it’s going to be very interesting to see how our notions of super-heroism and super-villainy evolve even further still.