(LOOK OUT! SPOILERS AHEAD) A lot of people are calling Black Panther “ground breaking.” I’m still not sure what people mean by “ground breaking” in reference to Black Panther. Is it the almost completely black cast that makes Black Panther ground breaking or is it the African-American director? Either way, Spike Lee did it decades ago with School Daze and Do the Right Thing. Is the movie ground breaking because we haven’t see a Marvel movie comprised of black actors? Considering the lack of diversity in comics and comic book movies this could easily make it “ground breaking.” No matter the reason Black Panther still suffers from the same problems as every other comic book movie. The biggest problem with Black Panther is it celebrates the wrong character.
Some respect should be given to the movie for mentioning, even briefly, the 1992 LA Riots. Comic book movies aren’t known for their social relevance. The closet thing a Marvel movie has come to it is in the first Iron Man movie. Tony Stark, for all of five minutes, felt a pang of remorse when he learned weapons his company developed were being used to kill innocent people (Shocker! Weapons actually kill innocent people). However, he didn’t feel enough remorse to stop making weapons. Stark went onto make a lot of Iron Man suits, destroy New York City, and some European city. So much for any social relevance or commentary.
If Black Panther is about anything other than being another two-hour commercial in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe it’s about keeping Wakanda a secret from the rest of the world. The more than two hour run time is dedicated to this theme. All the events, from the murder of Prince N’Jobu to CGI car chases and battle scenes, occur to protect Wakanda from the outside world. Too much of the movie’s run time serves to drive this point home to the audience. It’s also the root of the problem in Black Panther.
A city protected from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier isn’t an original idea. Like the camouflage, cloaking trope used in Wonder Woman there’s nothing preventing anyone from stumbling into the Golden City (also called Birnin Zana in the comic books), the capital of Wakanda. However, the movie and script doctors would have us believe Klaue, a villain who sounds like he’s from the east end of London, is the only person to have ever come across the real Wakanda.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument, even with the advent of satellites, the real Wakanda remained a secret from the outside world for centuries. The outside world, minus one thug, may have been unaware of Wakanda, but there’s more than one scene of Wakandans waving at T’Challa’s ship as it flies over head back and forth to his luxurious high tech palace. We never see these people pass the through the barrier nor do we expect these animal herders to be allowed to enter the city. The people that have managed to live inside the barrier haven’t fared much better than some other people in the poorest parts of Africa. Shuri, T’challa’s love interest in the movie, and T’Challa are shown walking through the lower class section of the city with an armed escort. Shuri wants to help the poor, but T’Challa seems almost against the idea of helping his own people. This isn’t the sort of attitude one would expect from a king who says he’s for all Wakandans. What we learn is when King T’Chaka and T’Challa says they are protecting Wakanda what they really mean is they’re protecting the royal family.
Introduced early in the movie is Eric Killmonger (You really have to love these over-the-top comic book names). During his visit to a museum he gives off all the signals that he’s a bad guy. If you didn’t know he was going to play a big role later in the movie his knowledge of Wakandan vibranium and artificats should have tipped you off he was someone important. Indeed, Killmonger turns out to be the most important character in Black Panther.
His vast knowledge of Wakandan artificats isn’t the only thing about Eric that will make him a threat later. It turns out he was a nineteen year old wunderkind who was the youngest person to ever graduate from MIT. Like all MIT graduates Killmonger turned his advanced degree in whatever into a military career. He was so damn hot the military brass saw fit to send him straight from boot camp to the SEALS. The SEALS weren’t enough to contain Killmonger’s baddassery. He went from the SEALS to Delta Force and onto unnamed secret squads responsible for disrupting governments and assassinating world leaders. To say Eric Killmonger achieved a lot in his young life is quite the understatement. Steve Rogers needed a super soldier serum to be an elite soldier and he’s still not half the man Killmonger turned out to be with only a degree MIT.
Killmonger may be the most unbelievable character in a universe full of unbelievable characters, but what is believable is his drive to take over the throne of Wakanda. Established at the beginning of the movie, and repeated in almost every other scene in the movie, Wakanda had been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries and the kings of Wakanda chose nationalism over helping Africa or the rest of the world. Over the centuries Wakanda didn’t help to stop the slave trade, turned a blind eye to the ivory trade and the trade in blood diamonds, ignored apartheid in South Africa, and turned their backs on the genocides in Rwanda, Central Sudan, and other countries in Africa. Killmonger’s ultimate goal was to bring Wakanda out of isolation and help black peoples not only in Africa but all over the world.
Shortly after the movie begins, there’s a big production (You can almost feel the Lion King vibe coming from the screen) made during T’Challa’s coronation any royal who wants to challenge the new king in combat can do so and if victorious would take T’Challa’s place as king. The outcome of the first challenge was never in doubt nor was the second challenge between T’Challa and Killmoner, who was revealed to be a prince of Wakanda. Killmonger wins and by centuries of Wakandan law becomes the new king. Once he’s installed as the new king of Wakanda he puts his plan of helping by any means necessary black people across the world.
The royal family isn’t too happy with Killmonger’s asscention. Although he hasn’t harmed or threatened to harm any member of the royal family they accuse him of being evil and head literally to the mountains. At this point in the movie Killmonger hasn’t harmed anyone except for Ulysses Klaue, a wanted fugitive wanted in Wakanda, the medicine man Zuri, who stepped in the middle of armed combat, and T’challa. What they’re actually afraid of is Killmonger’s plan to bring Wakanda out of the dark and give help to people long denied aid by the most advanced nation on the planet.
In response to Killmonger’s ascension to the throne the remaining members of the royal family and others loyal to T’Challa stage a coupe to remove Killmonger. Killmonger may have been set up as the bad guy in Black Panther, but he was far from being a “bad guy.” He was killed for believing Wakanda had the responsibility to help the oppressed in Africa and everywhere else in the world.
There’s a comparison between Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X with T’Challa and Killimonger that could be made. However, King didn’t sit idly by while Alabama remained segregated. He walked on DC with thousands of others to protest the treatment of African-Americans. King stood up to the power. T’Challa and a generation of Wakandan kings did nothing and would have remained isolated had Killmonger not stepped up. Killmonger is the hero who by the end of the movie forces T’Challa to bring Wakanda out of the dark and into the 21st Century.