There’s nothing wrong with a fun, dumb, Hollywood popcorn flick. Sitting in a darkened theater, turning off my brain, and letting Michael Bay or Zack Snyder blow things up until I can’t tell who or what was the antagonist any longer? Count me in. But, if you sat down this past weekend to see Marvel’s latest pull from their massive catalog of heroes, that is not what you got. Black Panther is explosive, for sure, but probably not in ways you’d expect from a large pre-summer release. Make no mistake, Panther has plenty of action, but it is also a smart, and sometimes challenging, foray into the complicated history race relations in the U.S. and beyond.
Already we are hearing the complaints that Marvel’s latest is too politically charged for the typical blockbuster audience. Surprisingly, many comic book fans are themselves finding Black Panther’s themes–themes examining racial exploitation, colonialism, and self-imposed segregation–as somehow controversial to a property that was born from these themes. Although Wakanda’s king, T’Challa, made his inaugural debut with the Fantastic Four in 1966, his real development as a character came with the Jungle Action series, beginning with issue #5 in 1973 and then running a continuous story through 13 issues, collectively known as “Panther’s Rage,” and is often referred to as Marvel’s first graphic novel.
“Panther’s Rage,” and the subsequent storyline, “Panther vs. The Klan,” caused debate in the very offices where they were created, and decades later, America’s discomfort with examining its racist past endues. The new Panther film, like earlier iterations, does not shy away from this history, but bravely confronts questions of inequity and even offers a few hopeful solutions–something rarely seen in American media, even in 2018. And, to its credit, Black Panther approaches its subject matter in a way vastly more complex than your typical Hollywood fare.
These characters are not flat, morality-tale, stereotypes. Both hero and villain are internally conflicted. While you will certainly cheer for T’Challa, you will find it difficult not to sympathize with Erik Killmonger and, to a
degree, understand his motivations if not his methods. Panther’s antagonist comes not from the peaceful utopia that is Wakanda but from our world. He has both experienced poverty and violence, has fought it with what weapons were available to him, and he truly believes in what he is doing. In many ways, he is more easily understood than our king. T’challa may be what we hope to become, but Erik Killmonger is who we are.
People will certainly complain that the new Black Panther film is not your typical mindless, forgotten-ten-minutes-after-it-ends, Saturday afternoon matinee. But, for those of us who have a passion for the source material for these films, it is nothing new. The best of Marvel and its creative team has always been those narratives that challenge us, question our deeply held assumptions about who we are, and left us is conversation long after we’ve left the theater. That is what Black Panther does, and because of that, it sits squarely among the best superhero films ever made.