In the days before and immediately after my baby girl was born, I remember the major cultural point of discussion being Black Panther, which was about to come out. People who had seen it already thought it was amazing – it had few bad reviews, and was being hailed as not just a really good superhero movie, but a really good movie, period. So I think not being able to see Black Panther was the first time I felt like I was missing out on the cultural zeitgeist. It sucks having to wait for these things to come into a mode where you can actually take the time to watch and enjoy, and I had to be very impatiently patient.
So when I saw that Black Panther would be coming to Netflix in September, I cheered internally. Finally – FINALLY! – I would get to see the movie that everyone had been talking about all year. And then I didn’t have time. Or rather, on the nights when I had free time in the evening, I would be watching something with the Boy. So it wasn’t until early October, on a night the Boy was late at work that I had the chance to start watching it. And I say “start watching it”, because I didn’t get very far in. The benefit of watching from home is that you can stop at any time if you need to. The downside of watching from home is that you can stop at any time and then find yourself going weeks between when you started and when you have a chance to finish up. I ended up watching Black Panther in not two, or even three parts, but on FOUR separate occasions, and I’m just glad I managed to finish the movie before I had this blog post scheduled!
Did it live up to the hype? Yes, definitely. The movie did an excellent job of doing some establishing of the characters without feeling too much like an origin story, which it was and was not. Because the mantle of the powerful Black Panther is something that’s passed down in a hereditary way, this hero is not new in the world, and had also been previously established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War by actor Chadwick Boseman in the role. So while there was definitely some establishing of how someone becomes the Black Panther, and a little history of the Black Panther and Wakanda, we are able to jump right into the plot of the movie, which is good for moving the action along, and making the viewer feel involved from the beginning without slowing things down for too much exposition.
I’m going to pause here for a moment and talk about one of the scenes that blew me away because it was so visually stunning. As a part of “establishing how someone becomes the Black Panther”, we are treated to a scene of ritual combat, where the new king/Black Panther is weakened, and then others in the nation of Wakanda are given the opportunity to challenge his place on the throne. It seems like a pretty legit if potentially horrifying way of transferring power which will establish that yes, this king is the most powerful, and that all the people in the country support his claim to the throne, or are at least deferential. But beyond that, it’s also where a large group of the (if not the entire) population gathers to watch this spectacle, and in the film it is STUNNING. The costume designer and the visual supervisors must have coordinated specifically to get the amazing rainbow gradient of color that covers the entire screen and is truly something to behold. The costumes in this movie are amazing and the subject for entire articles on their own, but this particular scene caught my breath with how beautiful it was. Because you don’t often expect unadulterated joyful beauty in an action film of any kind.
The other thing you don’t expect in a film like this is for the bulk of the supporting characters who are powerful and interesting to be women. Sure, there are a couple of male supporting characters that are important to the film as well, but the ones that we see by the side of King T’Challa most often are strong, complicated women. They are women who are with him for various reasons, and who don’t agree with each other or with T’Challa just because. There are also so many different kinds of women – there are your more prototypical superhero movie badasses in the Dora Milaje, the King’s elite squad of bodyguards led by Okoye (played by Danai Gurira of Walking Dead fame). You have the prone-to-troping character of T’Challa’s sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is a teenage science and technology genius who leads the Wakandan research and development (of course she does!), but who is able to fend off the trope by being so engaging and enthusiastic a character that you can just feel the sheer joy coming off of her in waves. And finally, we are treated to Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), a onetime member of the Dora Milaje, ex-girlfriend of T’Challa, and current spy. She is the one who probably changes the most over the course of the film, changing her expectations of what her role is going to be in her world, and what should and should not be done in the name of her king and country. As an audience, we are so lucky to have been treated to seeing these ladies on screen.
Obviously it’s a good movie. If you haven’t seen it yet – you should. If only because it’s going to be nominated for a boatload of Oscars, likely most of them technical. But it’s also the first superhero movie I’ve seen in a while that has made me think hard about things like what is right and what is ethical. Are the characters in the movie right for backing one side over another? Is it wrong to keep wealth and knowledge hidden so as not to be exploited? Is it wrong to keep power out of the hands of the poor and destitute when it could be used to change the world? This is the kind of Marvel movie that could potentially be nominated in categories like “Best Screenplay” or even “Best Picture”, depending on what else is in the running. It’s a movie that had a big impact on our society, and has the potential to change what studios think of when they think of “big blockbuster picture”. So this is me saying – if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now. Drink in the beauty and thoughtfulness from somewhere you didn’t expect to find it.