Spoiler Warning! This is an in-depth spoiler review.
Wow. I was blown away by this movie. Because there is so much to dissect and break down and I have so many thoughts and I’m just going to barely scratch the surface. I’m going to assume anyone reading this is already familiar with the cultural importance of this movie, and the cultural movement it ushered in. In this review, I will break down some of my personal thoughts, and I will comment on those aspects of the commentary that blew me away.
First of all, let me say, the movie starts off feeling unfamiliar because it is so different. I don’t mean it’s different from other Marvel movies, which is it. I mean, it has a completely different vibe from all the Euro-centric sci-fi and fantasy I’m used to. It was strange to behold, and SO REFRESHING! Of course, I have no idea how well it represented African traditions from the continent at large. But there was detailed world building and it was such an immersive experience, that I really feel like I got to know Wakanda. Each of the five tribes of Wakanda have their own culture and own customs and own clothes, and all of this was integrated seamlessly into the narrative without having to detract from it.
That being said, I want to touch on my personal thoughts regarding Wakanda. I’m not a comic-book reader and I have no familiarity with the Black Panther comics. But I watch a lot of YouTube videos that break down the MCU. And that’s how I learned about Wakanda at some point around the release of Civil War. At that time, I was confused about the fact that it was the most technologically advanced nation in the world. See, I didn’t realize at the time that it was hidden from the world by an invisible shield. So I was confused about how Africa the continent was viewed by the rest of the world – if they have such techologically strong leader, then is the continent in that universe doing better than in ours? But that confusion was of course cleared away by this movie. And it explains that Wakanda is not a leader; Wakanda keeps itself hidden to keep their tech safe.
Now, of course, black communities across the globe have been excited that we will finally be getting a movie about a powerful black community with a powerful black king. That is such a huge thing for a community who have been systematically oppressed in almost every part of the world. (They might not be oppressed for the color of their skin in most parts of their own continent, but they still have to face other kinds of oppression and injustice.) So this movie creates a cultural movement, because it provides a fantasy story where this community is a thriving powerful one.
But here’s the strength of the movie. It doesn’t leave it at a fantasy where we glorify this community. The movie drags this fantasy into the real world. And this movie is about Wakanda having to reexamine its position in the world by having to confront whether or not they have a responsibility to those people in need, black and otherwise, with all their wealth and technology. They have examine their history – yes, they escaped colonialism and slavery, and thrived, but they turned their backs on all their neighbors who are still suffering from poor infrastructure, corruption, and lack of stability. They turned a blind eye to the inustices faced by the African diaspora in every part of the western world. Actually here’s a really great video explaining all that.
So, now, add Killmonger to this mix. I don’t know about you, but I was totally on board with him the whole time. No, of course I don’t agree with his methods, his violence, his ruthlessness, or any of that. But I am on board with his mission. He has experienced this injustice I mentioned first hand. And he realizes that there is a way to fight back and he wants to do it. He realizes that he has a claim to the Wakandan throne, so he challenges the King, defeats him in ritualistic combat, and takes up the mantle of the Black Panther. His vision is to liberate black folks across the globe from systematic oppression.
Think about the story if it were from his perspective for a moment. It wouldn’t be unlike other American fantasy movies we have seen. An American goes into a different community and takes over, perhaps because of a birthright claim like Arthur Curry in Aquaman, or because of an act of heroism like Jake Sully in Avatar. The American becomes a leader in the outside community, and either is their savior, or he leads them into a new future or whatever it is. Either way, his actions are glorified by the movie and by the community which he takes over.
But this movie is not from the perspective of the American. It’s from the perspective of the African. And at the end of the day, Killmonger is an American who goes into an African nation and overthrows its government to serve his own purposes. Because that’s what we as Americans do, ultimately, whether it’s the oppressing class, or the oppressed class. America isn’t always the hero.
T’Challa calls out Killmonger for having become just like his oppressors. That part isn’t a new concept. I’m sure there are fictional examples, but right not I can only think of a real-world example, which I am not going to mention because let’s not go there. The part that’s unique is how this movie flips the script of the American/Western conqueror from hero to villain.
I would like to point out that Killmoger isn’t the only one who thinks Wakanda should use its wealth and tech to help the rest of the world. It of course, started with his father, N’Jobu, a Wakandan prince who experienced discrimination for the first time upon visiting America. He wanted to change the world with Wakandan technology but he unfortunately got murdered leaving his son to face the harsh reality that so many of his skin color share. (And N’Jobu’s murder is part of another arc regarding the commentary on Wakandans shirking responsibility.) And we also have Nakia, who witnesses the suffering faced by African communities, and finds her calling in helping them. In the movie, we see her fighting human trafficking in Nigeria. She left Wakanda because having seen this suffering, she feels she cannot stay in her priviledged bubble anymore.
So through his conversations with Nakia, his discovery of the truth about his uncle, and through having faced the very real danger posed by Killmonger, T’Challa makes a choice to break with tradition and reveal Wakanda to the world.
The other part of the commentary of the movie that really stuck out to me was that of the undercurrent of questionaing tradition. Shuri and Nakia represent those who are willing to break with tradition, and they receive criticism from the community for it; while Okoye represents those who respect tradition to a fault. Okoye will serve the new king because he ascended to the throne in a legitimitate way according to Wakandan tradition, whereas Shuri and Nakia vow to do everything in their power to overthrow him because they know he will wreak havoc. Okoye comes around only when she realizes that T’Challa was, in fact, not actually killed during the combat, hence, the new king is not a legitimate one. Shuri has Nakia don a Dora Milaje armor because of practical reasons, even though it goes against tradition. Some have speculated that perhaps in a future sequel she will also break tradition and don a Black Panther suit. I would be very excited to see that.
Speaking of Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye, did I mention the amazing cast of female characters in this movie? Seriously, they are some of the best female characters I have every seen in a fantasy movie of any sort. They each have their own views, their own beliefs and convictions, their own sense of purpose and their own calling. They all had their alleigance to Wakanda, but they had different views on how to fulfil their obligations to their country. And let’s also add that while their clothes were fantastic, whether it was their battle gear or their glam gear, never once was any of them offered up as eye candy. You say them as warrior/general, a genuis, and a woman with her own agenda.
I might revisit this topic if I think of more things to discuss. But really, I continue to be impressed by Marvel, because they are continuing to expand their boundaries. For those who complain that every Marvel movie feels the same, I really can’t see how they can say that about this movie. It was unlike any of it predecessors. It was less focused on the action and the CGI and it went all out on its layers and layers of global political commentary.