Remember the first time you saw a superhero? I do. I was sitting in my living room and my eyes were glued to the opening sequence of Batman the Animated Series. The score stirred, the Batmobile roared, and Batman served up justice all without any dialogue; it set the tone for the darkness, action, and intrigue that would keep me blissfully silent for the next 30 minutes. I believed that all superheroes looked like Batman: white and male. I was dead wrong. Enter the Black Panther!
I had no idea Black Panther existed until he cropped up in Captain America: Civil War and, embodied by Chadwick Boseman, changed the game for a black hero; he didn’t speak in slang or come from a depressed upbringing. He came from an advanced African society where he was a ruler and inhabited the spirit of an ancient panther warrior, a protector of his people. Now, THAT is an origin story. His first solo adventure did not disappoint either! The cinematography was epic and showcased the sweeping hills and mighty mountains of the African continent. The society of Wakanda, the kingdom of T-Chala (Black Panther), is a utopia filled with next-gen technology honed and created by blacks. The crux of the story is summed up in an age-old trope: “We have a perfect society here, why should we leave?” However, it was much more nuanced than that.
Michael B. Jordan’s complex and fraught Killmonger brought the issue of isolationism directly to the throne room where he proclaimed that for centuries, blacks across the world had fallen to the hands of white oppressors. With the technology of Wakanda, they could stand a fighting chance and reclaim what was taken from them. After seizing the throne, lawfully I might add, he sought to arm Wakandan agents throughout the globe to bring the world in line with Wakanda’s utopian vision of humanity. As a black man, his quest deeply connected with me; if I had the means, I would want nothing more than to help others who looked like me find happiness and prosperity. However, T-Chala had a great point as well; his duty was to protect his people from the pain and pestilence of the outside world.
The complexity of the characters did not end with the male leads. Strong black females who protected the king, created Wakanda’s technology, and offered counsel surrounded and supported these two men. At times, I would rather have watched them propel the narrative forward. Finally, the important role black women play in society was recognized and celebrated! Seeing a whole cast of black individuals headline a film was a first for me and such an amazing experience. For so long, blacks have been the punchline or armor barer of their white costars. Finally, we stepped out of the shadows and shone on an enormous stage.
However, the incredible performances and watershed cultural moments were hamstrung by a tried and trite storyline that failed to excite in its last act. It was the typical hero archetype that we have seen time and time again: hero rises, is tested, falls, struggles back, and wins the day. The film is top heavy with awe-inspiring surprises and action while the end fell flat. It felt rushed and formulaic, almost boring to a point
Let that not take away from the ground that this film broke. I walked into a theater teeming with black families, brought together on a Sunday afternoon to see a film that depicted heroes and villains that looked just like them. I was thrilled because no longer would the kids that walked around me have to grow up with the belief that there was only one type of hero or that they could never star in their own superhero adventure because of the color of their skin. While we have a long way to go, this is a triumphant entry into what black cinema ought to be.