Several years ago there was a push for Idris Elba (who played Stringer Bell in The Wire, mentioned here simply for the chance to once again reference the greatest television show ever: The Wire) to be cast as the next James Bond. Of course, this was before Daniel Craig offered possibly the best Bond ever, but with Craig’s tenure winding down (honestly, it should have ended with Skyfall and definitely with Spectre) speculation has once again started on who should be the next Bond. There are favorites like Tom Hardy, Tom Hiddleson, Michael Fassbender, Jack Huston and so forth who fulfill the traditional requirements of the role – basically, white, male, British… or at least almost British – but there are those of us who still wish to see Elba in the part, despite Elba declaring himself too old and saying the next Bond should be a woman, an idea just as controversial or “political” as that of casting a non-white actor. While chances are slim that the next person to portray 007 will either be female or a person of color, with Black Panther we now have what, in its characters and story beats, equals a black James Bond movie, a fact that is perhaps the biggest of all of Black Panther‘s many surprises.
After a quick flashback to early-90’s Oakland, California, a location not at all surprising from Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler, Black Panther picks up the Marvel Cinematic Universe one week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with T’Challa (Chadwick Bosman) trying to fit into the position and suit handed down from his father. These early scenes, including T’Challa’s first real mission in the titular role and his coronation as the new king of Wakanda, introduce viewers to the previously unknown African nation, its natural and technological wonders, its history, and its people. From here we quickly learn that Wakanda is indeed the most advanced nation in the world, where everyday citizens happily admire the sight of what is later accurately described as a “Bugatti spaceship.” This little gesture, the act of shepherds waving as a T’Challa’s craft flies by, shows us that not only is the new leader already loved by the citizenry, but that bleeding-edge technology is as routine for the people of this fictional nation as it is for the viewing audience of Marvel films.
Yet beyond this technology and ties built in from previous entries, there’s very little which connects Black Panther to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, so little in fact that one must wonder if the film would have attracted as much attention or amassed such praise (and, of course, the inevitable backlash) if it weren’t for the MCU branding. Panther both follows and deviates from the establishes Marvel formula, not merely in looking different or in having culture as a central touchstone, but in more subtle ways such as not having a long fits of banter or a wise-cracking lead. On the one hand, it’s likely Marvel’s least funny film (don’t worry, there is comic relief, and it’s hilarious) but it’s kind of nice to have a Marvel character who doesn’t sound like Tony Stark. Still, it’s hard not to notice that T’Challa himself is seldom the most compelling character on screen. Bosman plays him as regal and charismatic, determined and conscientious, a man raised to be a king yet a boy lost without his father, but there are times when the sheer strength demanded of the character causes him to feel distant. This may be a result of T’Challa having to uphold hundreds of years of tradition but it’s difficult to sympathize with someone who seems invulnerable or without doubt much in the way that Bond always feels invincible no matter how dire the odds.
This invulnerability comes back to the MCU’s running problem with rampant technology and the literal dues ex machina which Tony Stark brings to the shared universe. In Wakanda we have the most advanced technology yet, highlighted as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, played with a snappy energy by Letitia Wright, gives her big brother a tour which very closely resembles Bond perusing Q’s latest gadgets. However, Black Panther does an admirable job in both mixing fantasy-technology with traditional African aesthetics (such as spears that emit sonic waves) and establishing the danger of spreading such technology. Hopefully future Marvel films will heed Black Panther‘s advice and either slow their fictional development or use it sparingly, otherwise the films could suffer the same technology fatigue that invisible, remote control cars brought to the Bond films.
The interesting part of this invulnerability is that the story sees our protagonist struggle more than perhaps any other Marvel hero in recent memory. While any details could constitute spoilers, there is a more intimate threat at work here than in most superhero films, Marvel or otherwise. In this case the threat is provided by a pair of outstanding villains (again, different from the formula). Andy Serkis clearly has a grand time as the delightfully sociopathic Ulysses Klaue, yet Michael B. Jordan’s character of Killmonger is one of if not the most interesting character the film has. He’s clearly set as a mirror of T’Challa, much as Magneto is to Charles Xavier (or Skyfall‘s Raoul Silva is to James Bond) yet his motivations, backstory, and even his desires could make him the more sympathetic of the two for a good portion of the audience. Killmonger is at his most basic, like many Bond villains, an arms trader, yet he, like the best Bond villains, makes a strong argument. The fact that he is cast as the villain is as much a political statement as any other made in the film, albeit more subtle than casually marking the film’s other white character with “colonizer” or very unsubtle (and true) statements like “The wise build bridges, while the fools build barriers.” Although, again, details would spoil the film, I’ll just state that instead of a poster for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back a more appropriate Public Enemy album might’ve been Fear of a Black Planet.
(I guess it needs to be said: the most telling element of Black Panther as a political statement is that it’s considered a political statement. It’s fairly damn obvious that a film about an isolated African nation would have an almost entirely black cast, and the idea that anyone would be offended by that, or decide to hate such a film simply because it focuses on a black superhero, is baffling and shows how fragile – I’ll say it – many of my fellow white people are.)
The addition of a specific hip-hop poster in an apartment in early-90’s California serves as a clear sign of Ryan Coogler’s personal approach to the project. Coogler, whose films Creed and Fruitvale Station both starred Michael B. Jordan (and he was also in the greatest television show ever: The Wire), approaches his MCU debut with the same level of authorship as Taika Waititi did on Thor: Ragnarok. Also like Waititi, there are times when Coogler displays unease with such a huge undertaking. Cartoonish visual effects, blurry action sequences, and story set-ups which don’t entirely fit together are among some of the film’s flaws. As well, an over-reliance on last second “surprises” and a predictable structure make the story less engaging and more perfunctory. There are times when it feels as though Black Panther is trying to do so much at once, as though hoisting an entire continent on its back, that it shrugs under the weight of its own expectations. Yet while Panther doesn’t quite work as well in the larger demands of blockbuster filmmaking, it excels at the smaller, more intimate details such as those addressed by Killmonger, or the relationships between Bosman and Lupita Nyong’o (whose Nakia comes off with the same determination as recent Bond girls) and Bosman and Danai Gurira’s Okoye, a character which doesn’t fit my entire Black Panther as Bond movie theme but is too good to not mention.
Sure, Black Panther may not have the hilarity of Ragnarok, the intensity of Civil War, or the roaring fun of Guardians of the Galaxy, but at its best, as an discussion of power structures and the duty of free people to help those still feeling the effects of oppression, it offers something no other Marvel movie ever could. It may not (in my humble opinion) rank among Marvel’s best, but it’s still very good, and between the cast, the director, and the character, Black Panther has a solid future ahead. Don’t forget, Captain America and Thor both got much better sequels… as did James Bond.