Like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther arrived in theaters as something more than just a movie. It is a vessel for liberal piety and multicultural hope, a blockbuster attempt to effectuate the union of our era’s defining Hollywood genre, the comic-book extravaganza, with the identity-politics concerns that dominate the Trump-era Left. The fact that it is not technically the first blockbuster featuring a black superhero, as Wonder Woman was not technically the first to feature a superheroine (let alone a female action hero), is irrelevant to the excitement: What matters is that they’re the firsts of this moment, the first attempts to harness the power of Marvel and DC for the causes of anti-racism and “the future is female,” the first chance to make the superhero genre into an auxiliary of anti-Trumpism.
For conservatives inclined to be skeptical of such politically engineered Moments, the actual movies have come as something of a relief. To the extent that there were real politics in Wonder Woman (as opposed to politics just superimposed upon it), they were the neocon-hawkish “no appeasement of the Germans” sort, with some traditional romance instead of the original comic’s kinks and a star who combined a very modern vision of female physical omnicompetence with the old-fashioned virtue of being insanely hot.
And now likewise in Black Panther, you have a story whose moral arc actually bends away from the radicalism implied by the title — a story that asks us to pull for an ancient hereditary monarchy and against a revolutionary, to admire a society that’s put up walls and self-segregated for generations, and to choose a vision of black power that rejects violent racial redress in favor of that old Booker T. Washingtonian standby of educational uplift.
The ancient monarchy is Wakanda, a hidden kingdom in the heart of Africa, with overtones of King Solomon’s Mines and Prester John and El Dorado. To the world outside, it’s just another impoverished statelet — but that’s actually because Wakandan technology is so advanced, thanks to extensive deposits of vibranium, the world’s most awesome metal, that it has no difficulty cloaking its bustling mega-city and maglev trains and hovercraft from the prying eyes of Westerners and fellow Africans alike.
The king of this fair country is also, conveniently, a superhero, thanks to a flower potion that grants him the usual-for-these-movies superhuman strength. As our story begins, a succession is in process: King T’Chaka is dead, long live King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who has already been doing apprentice-superhero in a panther costume rigged up by his entertaining scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is basically Q to his James Bond.
But there is trouble in paradise. T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), and his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) both think Wakandan isolation needs to end, that either humanitarian aid or some kind of military adventurism is a moral obligation for so powerful a kingdom. And bigger trouble is coming from outside, where a cousin of T’Challa, Eric Killmonger, has grown up on the streets of Oakland and taken up the mantle of that city’s Black Panthers, allied himself with a giggly South African arms dealer (Andy Serkis, in a rare enfleshed rather than motion-captured appearance), and set his sights on a triumphant return home. The son of a father who was executed by T’Chaka for choosing black power over Wakandan splendid isolationism, Killmonger is a muscled killer (his last name is a nickname from his days in special ops) and a would-be revolutionary, determined to claim the Wakandan throne and all its vibranium weaponry in order to turn the world of imperialists and colonizers upside down.
As embodied by the swole and charismatic Michael B. Jordan, he gets most of the best lines and the most straightforward argument; he is also presented, from the first, as a murderer and a fanatic, which is why some of the most interesting reactions to the movie have come from left-wing writers accusing Ryan Coogler, the movie’s talented African-American director, of selling out the revolution by stacking the deck in favor of a tame neoliberal meliorism.
Such are the perils of yoking wokeness to a corporate franchise, but a fairer reading is that Coogler is trying to strike a balance among three worldviews — post-colonial radicalism, liberal humanitarianism, and the deep and abiding and, yes, reactionary appeal of an ancien régime to call one’s own. That balancing isn’t quite successful because it can’t be quite successful, but it makes Black Panther a lot more interesting than the average superhero movie; its fantasy is still a fantasy and sometimes an absurd one, but it’s one with more genuine relevance to our world than the umpteenth battle against a cosmic supervillain.
The movie is also a good study in why, while the pursuit of representation for its own sake (make sure that part X is always played by ethnicity Y, have the Bechdel Test beside you while you write your script) is exhausting and a scourge of art, the pursuit of representation for the sake of discovering new and interesting stories can be a great artistic boon. Black Panther is more interesting than Avengers 17 or whatever precisely because it sets out to tell a story about Africa, not just a story about a guy with superpowers — and there are many more African stories, real and fictional, waiting to be told.
Especially, perhaps, stories about the human future, where the combination of African religiosity and fecundity and the developed world’s decadence will make the erstwhile dark continent far more influential than most of us now recognize. There is no Wakanda, or not yet, to lead the way in shaping what that influence will look like. But the act of imagining the kingdom is not just an attempt to envision a different African past, an alternative to subjugation. It’s an exercise in useful inspiration for a billion-plus people whose destiny, for good and ill, will inevitably overlap with and help determine ours.