Now That We’ve Finally All Seen It, Let’s Talk About Black Panther
In case you haven’t been near a theater, TV, mall, or interstate overpass, and haven’t seen the news, Black Panther opened this weekend. And it opened big. Like, history-making box office numbers big. With good reason—T’Challa (aka Black Panther) is a hero fans have been anticipating for a long time. As WIRED’s Jason Parham noted last week before Marvel’s latest movie “black superheroes were never afforded the same deification” as their white counterparts, but now Panther director Ryan Coogler has made a movie that shows what a superhero movie can truly be. A lot of us here at WIRED saw the movie over the weekend, and now that the worries of spoilers have receded (yes, this post will have them, continue at your own risk), it’s time we finally talk about it at length. Here we go—Wakanda forever!
Angela Watercutter: OK, I’m not going to say too much right off the bat because I want to know what my colleagues thought, but I will just say that Black Panther lived up to the hype. Like, the anticipation for this movie had been building for months and I was starting to worry that nothing could live up to what fans were hoping for with this movie, no matter how talented everyone working on this film is, but judging from the reaction at the screening I saw, people are thrilled. Did you guys have the same experience? How did you feel walking out of the theater? Did you sense that your fellow theater-goers were satisfied?
Peter Rubin: Angela, we were both in Hall H for Marvel’s panel at Comic-Con last July, and after Ryan Coogler surprised the crowd with some BP footage, we both know what was possible. The mood in that room—among attendees, Comic-Con staffers, and the crew itself—was not your usual “ah, this looks cool!” anticipation. Something cathartic happened in there. And even though I had the opportunity to go to a press screening earlier last week, I skipped it, because I wanted to see it for the first time in a theater full of people who were invested in it.
I wasn’t disappointed. Not by the movie, and not by the feeling of joy and lightness (and yes, Oakland pride) that was occupying every chair at in that theater. Two seats over from me was a young kid, seven or eight years old, in a full-on T’Challa suit; in the 24 hours since I saw the movie, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the T’Challas (and Okoyes and Shuris) all over the country, stepping out into recess feeling like heroes. Justice, you’ve already seen it twice, right? What kind of differences did you notice in the two screenings—either in the crowd’s reception or in your own enjoyment?
Justice Namaste: The first screening I went to (second one is today!) was in Oakland on opening night. The only screening I've been in that nearly matched the energy in the theater during Black Panther was during the opening weekend of Get Out, when one of my friends actually fell out of their chair during the pivotal scene.
Visually, no other Marvel movie has ever come close to Black Panther—the lush Wakandan landscapes, the vibrantly colored costumes, even the wearable tech was beautiful. And that moment where the Royal Talon Fighter dips below the veil and we get an aerial look over the Golden City? Jawdropping.
But even with all this to mull over, when I left the theater, what was left ringing in my ears was Erik Killmonger's last words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” In my opinion, the driving relationship in the film was that between T'Challa and Killmonger. (Or, thought of another way, the one between T’Chaka and N’Jobu, but realized through their sons.) T’Challa and Killmonger didn't spend much time together on screen when they weren't trying to murder each other—their lack of real dialogue was one of the movie’s more disappointing choices—so the tension between them was largely ideological, but it still drove the story. The “son reckoning with his father’s legacy” trope is a staple of the MCU, but it’s a limited one. Using a villain like Killmonger to complicate the idea of what heroism actually looks like, though? That's a much more fascinating story.
Phuc Pham: As much as I enjoyed watching T’Challa grapple with both his opponents and his emotional demons, I couldn’t shake the sense that his heroic arc was a copy-paste of the superhero’s journey that Marvel has come to rely on. I mean, this is the fourth guy that has had a plot twist regarding his father upend his world.
Killmonger, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me. While T’Challa does his whole superhero thing, his archenemy points to actual systemic oppression, grounding Marvel’s universe in the real world in a way that feels new and bold. His motivation, essentially, is black liberation the world over—which to me qualified as the biggest heroic endeavor in the film. (At least until you realize that the means to achieve that end are vibranium weapons and a high body count.) Like you, Justice, I wish T’Challa and Killmonger had spent more screen time hashing out their ideological differences. The scenes when they engage in ritual combat are visceral—no Black Panther powers allowed!—but also seemed like wasted opportunities for some fight chatter about how best to rule Wakanda as well as improve the lives of the African diaspora.
Watercutter: Totally. I also wanted Killmonger and T’Challa to have more time to actually talk about their differences. Because, unlike almost every other Marvel villain before, Killmonger didn’t just want to rule to be a ruler. He wanted liberation, and in that he and T’Challa weren’t too far apart—they just had different ideas of how to achieve it. In that final scene that Justice mentioned, I truly didn’t want Killmonger to go. I wanted him to join T’Challa and stay in Wakanda. That, to Jason’s point, doesn’t happen often in these films. Maybe it happened a bit with Loki, but he’s always been a character with many allegiances. (And yes, Peter, I remember that Comic-Con Hall H panel—I’ve never felt anything like that a SDCC, and doubt I ever will again.)
Jason, in your great review last week you talked about how Black Panther showed what a superhero movie could do. What do you think it demonstrated in how it portrayed both its heroes and villains?
Parham: I didn’t think Michael B. Jordan’s acting was particularly strong, but I do agree that Killmonger as a character was perhaps the film’s most compelling—because he really wasn’t your typical antihero. I think Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker was correct in that the real villain was history itself. Killmonger’s rage was merely a product of the times, and all the despair he’d seen firsthand around the world. That’s a heavy burden to reckon with, but not an untrue one. In doing this, Coogler positioned the film in a really smart way, giving it historical currency but also contemporary heft, and all without feeling like he was trying to make some obvious political statement.
One of the more brilliant aspects of the movie—a credit to Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s fine script—was its insistence on complicating character arcs, especially with people like W’Kabi and M’Baku, who expertly straddled the line between good and bad. Then there’s someone like Okoye, who is fiercely loyal to Wakanda in every regard. Her inner confliction felt so palpable—being forced to serve an unfit king and wage war against her lover (Danai Gurira’s Okoye was maybe my favorite character, along with Shuri and M’Baku). Everyone felt like they were doing what was best for Wakanda, which you can’t really fault them for. It felt like a truer reflection of what it means to be alive in the world today. Black Panther succeeds on so many levels. I’m curious: what did everybody think were some of the stronger aspects of the film?
Namaste: This is the obvious answer, but I just have to say it—the women. The strongest part of the film was undoubtedly all of the women characters. And that extends to the women behind the scenes as well. Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia, Angela Bassett's Ramonda, Letitia Wright's Shuri (and of course Okoye and the rest of the Dora Milaje) were complex characters whose identities and motivations did not revolve solely around men. The audience saw Okoye as both a warrior and a lover, Nakia as an undercover spy who's more concerned with protecting human rights than gathering intelligence, and Shuri as a younger (and better?) Tony Stark.
Not to mention the fact that their actions and beliefs are key to driving the story forward. Nakia is the first character who really pushes T'Challa to consider what Wakanda's responsibility is to oppressed people across the rest of the world. And T'Challa would likely be dead 10 times over without Shuri's engineering brilliance. Speaking of which, I've seen Letitia Wright being called the breakout star of the film, a title she most certainly deserves. As Shuri, she delivers some of the funniest lines, while also masterfully navigating a series of tense and heart-wrenching moments. Sure, T’Challa might be the Black Panther, but these women are far from secondary characters.
Pham: I’m so glad the writers decided to adapt Nakia and the Dora Milaje away from the ways they’re set up in some of the older comic book runs, where Nakia has an unrequited crush on T’Challa and the Dora Milaje—in addition to their role as royal guards—are a pool of potential queens. So extra kudos to film-Nakia for asserting she doesn’t want to be a Dora.
There hasn’t been an MCU film that’s as focused on technology since the Iron Man trilogy, and I was struck by how hopeful Black Panther, both the movie and the character, are how a future shaped by it doesn’t have to be dark and bleak. Production designer Hannah Beachler has said how Blade Runner inspired her vision of Wakanda’s capital Birnin Zana, and it shows. The dense urban landscape, replete with pristine skyscrapers and dusty merchant stalls, certainly hearken to traditional cyberpunk environments. Here, though, Afrofuturism shines figuratively and literally. Wakanda forgoes the dim and damp settings of futuristic cities (why are the streets always slicked with rain?) for a warm glow that almost makes you root for Killmonger’s vision of an empire upon which the sun never sets.
Thematically, the film also bucks the trend of Marvel movies in which new technology always begets catastrophe. Tony Stark’s bleeding-edge armaments always seem to end up in the hands of terrorists while Chitauri tech enables a middle-aged megalomaniac to hunt high schoolers in his spare time. Meanwhile, T’Challa not only prevents vibranium from being weaponized but also closes the film with plans to open a Wakandan outpost in Oakland—a city adjacent to Silicon Valley wealth yet wracked by a 20 percent poverty rate—to share and exchange knowledge. In an age when technology is often abused for nefarious and disruptive ends, the Black Panther’s techno-optimism seems to be a call for fewer divisions, not more.
Rubin: The rest of you have already ticked off just about everything that made this movie so appealing, so in hopes of adding something new to the mix, I’ll close with the idea that Black Panther created an entirely new lane for the MCU. After all 4,000 characters band together to (presumably) defeat Thanos in the two Avengers: Infinity War movies, Marvel is going to need a way to move forward, and Wakanda’s entry onto the global geopolitical stage is one of those ways. The MCU has its cosmic arm, its street-level arm, its mystical arm—and now Wakanda links the political intrigue of the Captain America movies with the deeply personal stories of a fully-fleshed world.
Does that mean we’ll see a Dora Milaje prequel movie in 2021? An M’Baku standalone? Only time will tell, but with a roster of new characters, ready-made internal conflict, and a rising cadre of filmmakers who are ready and able to tell these stories, the MCU’s prospects as a long-range paracosm have never been better.