People on social media have been hyping Black Panther ever since the trailer dropped towards the end of last year, and after seeing it I can confidently say it did not disappoint. Black Panther ambitiously tries to tackle themes that aren't typical for a big-budget MCU movie, including race, identity, geopolitics, and the struggles of Black people in America. It is also the first and only superhero movie that features an almost entirely Black cast!
Black Panther's themes are primarily explored through the antagonist Erik Killmonger Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan), a child of Wakanda who finds himself in exile in America after his father (T'Chaka's brother) is caught selling the powerful Wakadan metal, Vibranium, to the black market. As a child growing up in Oakland, Killmonger grows up intimately familiar with the violence and over-policing perpetrated by the state against the Black community. After he learns about his Wakandan roots, he makes it his singular goal to reunite with Wakanda and distribute its superior technology to disenfranchised Black communities to liberate them from their oppressors. His rich backstory and motivations make Killmonger one the best and most relatable villains in any MCU movie to date (Michael B. Jordan is also extremely charismatic). In his review of Black Panther, Ira B. Madison makes the point that Killmonger might actually become the hero in any other Marvel movie, which makes his character so beautifully complex. As a child of the Asian diaspora, I can certainly see shades of myself in Killmonger and the frustrations of feeling out-of-place and unwelcome.
Throughout the film, I found myself wondering whether or not Killmonger would make a good and trustworthy leader or not. While Black Panther certainly touches on his questionable experience in foreign nations as part of a covert squad to overthrow foreign leaders, I don't disagree wholeheartedly with his opinions. After Killmonger ingests the heart-shaped herb, we are treated to an incredibly intimate conversation between him and his father in the ancestral plane and are reminded of the brutality of T'Chaka's actions. As viewers, we are given a glimpse into the perversion of good intentions obscured by a singular goal. Killmonger becomes guilty of this as well when he murders his girlfriend in order to assure his arrival in Wakanda. Ultimately, the scene in Black Panther that really shows Killmonger's true villainous nature is when he demands that the heart-shaped garden be burned to the ground. We are never told why he chooses to do this, but we can only assume that it is to secure his reign. To me, this seemed fairly inconsistent with his character. The heart-shaped herb offered him a connection to his father, to his roots, and an assurance of his self-preservation, yet he still decides to burn it all to stabilize his power. What good could have come out of sharing the power of the heart-shaped herb with the African diaspora, many of which can no longer trace their ancestry to a specific place in Africa?
By contrast, T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman), the inheritor of Wakanda's Black Panther title, is not fleshed out as a character nearly as fully. We get to know his family, his vague desires for how he would like to lead, and his personality, but we don't know much about his motivations. Most of his growth as a character is shaped by his encounter will Killmonger, which eventually leads him to acquiesce and open up Wakanda to the rest of the world. I found this to be one of the more interesting developments in the plot, and can't recall other superhero movies where the "villain" actually gets through to the protagonist. While T'Challa's version of opening up Wakanda is much more diplomatic than Killmonger's, it is a stark contrast from his earlier Wakanda-first political position.
The ideological battle between Killmonger and T'Challa brings up questions about the relationship between wealthy Black people and poor Black people. As a Wakandan privileged with royal blood, T'Challa seems content in continuing his father's legacy of a Wakandan-first Wakanda. He is comfortable insulating himself and the rest of Wakanda from the outside world to protect their guarded interests. By contrast, Killmonger, who grew up experiencing the constant burden of being Black in a white-supremacist society, understands the importance of violence as a tool of self-preservation. When your body is under constant threat and surveillance, violence sometimes might actually be the only option. Asking someone to wait for a political solution to an urgent threat is asking for unearned patience, and asking for them to take the high road is asking for them to give what little they do have to people who don't deserve it. Ultimately, we are unsure if Wakanda's outreach programs will actually do anything to help the people that Killmonger had in mind. The advanced Wakandan technology might inspire Black people, but I am skeptical that the technology would ever be controlled by Black folks. More likely than not, it would be monopolized by the rich to expand their vast empires of wealth.
The opening up of Wakanda also brings up questions regarding the complicated intersections between imperialism, colonialism, and foreign aid. The U.S. is certainly guilty of promoting an agenda under the guise of altruistic foreign aid, so would it be any surprise if Wakanda were any different? We are led to believe that T'Challa's outreach attempts are genuine because we are led to believe that T'Challa is a moral person, but, we also might remember that he essentially inherited his role as Black Panther, and that his past is still very much mysterious. I was left wondering whether or not the opening up of Wakanda would actually be a good thing for the rest of the world. Wakanda's wealth and inexperience with global politics might open it up to the exploitation of other superpowers (you know who), who would feel threatened by its existence. I certainly hope that any sequels continue to try to delve into the complex nature of Wakanda's relationship to the rest of the world, and that they don't shy away from dealing with these politically-loaded themes.
There is a lot to love in Black Panther and I don't feel like this review has even scratched the surface. As an Asian American, I'm sure there is a lot of stuff I missed or probably wasn't even supposed to glean. There were parts that bothered me, like the orientalist portrayal of the seedy underground gambling club in South Korea, but overall it was fun and refreshing to see a big-budget movie so celebratory of Black culture.
Conclusion: Go see Black Panther! It is extremely entertaining and quite deep. It also manages to be funny and sincere, and will make all your white and neoliberal assimilated Asian friends uncomfortable.
(What I would love to see: a fanfic about the geopolitical conflict between Wakanda and the U.S.)