Black Panther: The Most Important Comic Book Film Made Thus Far

by Ben Martin

The comic book movie genre has been going strong for quite a while now. For nearly 20 years, the genre has been a mainstay on the big screen. After that long, sure factions develop. Some people prefer the films of The Marvel Cinematic Universe while others tend toward the offerings of The DC Extended Universe. The picking of these comic camps is something that goes all the way back to the comic books themselves. You’ll never have an issue finding a reader who refuses to pick up one of these two publishers. I read both of them, but would certainly consider myself leaning toward DC in preference when it comes to the comics, but only by a margin. However, I’ve  also read my fair share of Marvel titles as well.
Aside from offering a different stable of characters, Marvel also offered up a much different flavor than DC and still does today. Among the notable differences between “The Big 2” was the fact that DC was always more earth-based whereas Marvel has a cosmic bent and takes inspiration from sci-fi. Beyond that, Marvel has always had more of a sense of humor than its competitor. For me though the most notable differences between these two titans is that Marvel has always been more socially conscious and progressive of the two publishers.
Such awareness can be largely attributed to Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “The King” Kirby. Throughout the 60s, Lee wrote, and Kirby drew titles that were allegories for real social issues. The two most notable books to possess such a quality were Fantastic Four (1961) and X-Men (1963). Fantastic Four could be considered an allegory for working together as a family, despite exceptional circumstances. Meanwhile, X-Men, according to its creators was an allegory for the civil rights movement and the differences in ideology and approach between civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).

In 1966, the two cornerstone creators made a very progressive move when they created Black Panther. The character was the first African protagonist in mainstream comic book history; making his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52 in July of that year. Having a hero of color doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it definitely was then and would be for years to come. Just to give you some perspective, Black Panther was the only black hero to grace comic pages for years until Marvel created the characters of The Falcon (1969), Luke Cage (1972), and Blade (1973). (During that time, it should be noted that DC also created the character of Jon Stewart in the Green Lantern books (1971). Not to mention, DC  did beat Marvel to the punch as far as having a female-led title and protagonist in the form of Wonder Woman (1941)). Back to the character at hand though.
Black Panther followed the adventures of T’Challa, ruler, and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. When protecting his country, T’Challa would don the mantle of The Black Panther. In doing so, the character would have enhanced strength and abilities, thanks to imbibing the heart-shaped herb, exclusive to Wakanda and only able to be harnessed by those who are worthy of the powers the herb offers. After appearing as a guest or secondary character in various titles, Black Panther had his first significant solo arc in the pages of Jungle Action (1955); his arc ran through Issues #6-18. Early on, the book and its protagonist dealt with relevant social issues as part if narrative. The first of which would come in the latter half Black Panther’s Jungle Action arch dubbed, Panther’s Rage, which had the hero facing down The KKK.
Over the decades, Black Panther has remained one of Marvel’s most popular “B level” heroes. Like many of the publisher’s other properties, Black Panther went beyond the pages of the comics at a certain point. He was featured in both video games and animated series, all while remaining popular in his native medium. In the intervening years, more African-American heroes would make the way to the silver screen. The first of these being the films Spawn and Steel, both released in August of ‘97. Unfortunately, both these films are quite terrible, proving to be nothing more than underfunded and forgettable products of their time.
Then in the Summer of 1998, a proper and well-received comic-book movie featuring an African-American hero was finally made. Blade was a massive hit and is considered to have brought the genre out of its brief slump after the flops mentioned above and Batman & Robin, which all came out the previous year. Despite the popularity of Blade at the time, it eventually fizzled out after spawning two sequels, Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004) as well as a very short-lived TV series. After that, despite being incredibly popular, comic book films proved to not be very diverse on the big screen. That is, aside from the inclusion of Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as a supporting character in several MCU films.
In 2016, it was made clear that this trend would soon change when T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) made his film debut in Captain America: Civil War. Despite being part of a large ensemble piece, Black Panther did make enough an impression with the film-going audience, myself included. However, I must admit to having been doubtful about the character needing his own film, even though he played an important, albeit, supporting role in Civil War. Shortly after this, it was announced that writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) would be helming and co-scripting the Black Panther solo film.
In writing and directing Creed (2015), Coogler  proved he could bring a new dynamic to a franchise that possessed a tried and true (and for some tired) formula. Yes, Creed is simultaneously a spin-off and the seventh entry in the long-running Rocky franchise. On paper, such a thing may sound like a dreadful retread. To the contrary, however, Creed proved to be the second best entry in that franchise, aside from the original; in my opinion. Such an outcome was no doubt primarily due to Coogler and his recurring lead-actor, Michael B. Jordan (of the upcoming Fahrenheit 451). After being so impressed with Coogler and Jordan’s previous effort, my anticipation for the Black Panther movie was significantly bolstered. Following that, I became hyped for the picture thanks to Marvel’s brilliant and unique marketing campaign for the flick. Thus, when I took a seat in the theater, I was extremely curious about what I would be presented with.
[*Mild spoilers for Black Panther below!!]
Following the events of Civil War, T’Challa assumes the throne and protector (in the form of The Black Panther) of Wakanda. Despite having trained for the position his whole life, T’Challa is still hesitant about becoming his country’s ruler and with good reason. Wakanda is a peaceful and separatist nation, setting itself apart from the rest of the continent of Africa. The nation chooses to conduct itself this way largely because it alone is the native land of the heart-shaped herb; which for the purposes of The MCU is derived from Vibranium. Thanks to being able to harness Vibranium, the people have been able to make both technological and medical advances to the point of becoming the most advanced country on earth.
Despite having a lot on his plate, T’Challa has an excellent support system: His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) develops all the Vibranium-based innovations of their country while his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) serves as a key-source of encouragement for her son. In addition, Okoye (Danai Gurira) is vigilante as head of the king’s security while T’Challa’s close friend, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is a key strategist for the Wakandan government. Outside of Wakanda, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) serves as a spy for her country, in other parts of Africa. Each of these characters, who are all seemingly close to our hero, are essential in protecting their homeland. Alas, a threat quickly presents itself after a “Misidentified Wakandian artifact,” is stolen by Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who intends to sale the vibranium-laced artifact on the black market. This theft was achieved with the help of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who has designs on challenging T’Challa’s place on the throne.

This may sound like blasphemy, but even as a big fan of both comics and movies, I find myself feeling a bit of fatigue with comic book movies themselves. Despite the fact that I enjoyed every one of the comic-based movies that came out last year, they just make so many of them! The fact of the matter is that more so than most other genres, comic book movies have a formula. Now, this doesn’t make the genre inferior or the films within it bad, just somewhat predictable. Well friends, Black Panther largely changes all of that. Not only did it exceed my expectations; it wasn’t by the book.
There are two aspects to the film that make it unique. Firstly, I wouldn’t say that Black Panther plays like a comic book film. Instead, it feels more like a socio-political thriller and a war film. Oh, then there’s a portion of it, that plays like a James Bond installment. Going away from such a predictable narrative and tonal layout is incredibly refreshing. I must commend Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) for penning a screenplay that not only strays away from the expected; but also has things to say. But, I’ll get to that latter point shortly. Secondly, the MCU movies have a specific look, which makes sense as the movies that make up this universe are ultimately pieces of a whole. The issue is that while the films are well-shot, there’s nothing special about their cinematography overall. In fact, I’d go far as to say the MCU is a bit bland visually. That’s not the case with this installment as the filmmakers went out of their way to give Black Panther a unique look. Unlike most of its predecessors in the universe, Black Panther is bright, vibrant and warm from a cinematography standpoint. The look presented in the film serves as a perfect complement to its narrative.

Beyond the story and the visuals, the cast here knocks it out of the park. Chadwick Boseman reprises his role perfectly. As expected, he also gets a chance to expand on the character a bit. Thus, I found him more likable than I did in Civil War. The thing is though, that the cast around Boseman steal the show. Everyone in this massive cast brings there A-game, no exceptions. Moreover, one of the issues with Marvel movies is finally fixed with this cast.
For years now, many people have pointed out that the villains of the MCU are kind of weak. In my opinion, this is generally true. Killmonger presents us with this universe’s strongest villain thus far. He is a well-written character whose motivations are both understandable and to an extent, identifiable. With Jordan’s performance humanizing this antagonist and bringing him to life, the stakes are raised. Killmonger isn’t just some super-villain with domination and destruction as his sole desire with nothing to back such anarchy up. Instead, his appetite for destruction has a basis in humanity; or lack thereof. Frankly, the only other villain of the MCU I can say that about is Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulcan and he’s not nearly as fleshed-out. At this time in this cinematic universe’s history, the cast of Black Panther is undoubtedly the strongest.

All this praise I’m heaping is not to say that this movie doesn’t have its issues, however. As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, for a movie bearing the title Black Panther, the titular character gets a bit lost in his own flick. There are just so many characters in the film, who are more vibrant and scene-stealing, in the best way possible. Whereas, the Black Panther himself is a much more reserved character. I’ll put it this way, when T’Challa wasn’t onscreen, I didn’t miss him much. Perhaps there will focus a little on more on him in the sequel, but that would be difficult to do in the rich world that is Wakanda. Other than that, the film’s pacing is a little off. It moves well for the most part. However, there are moments where the pace slows, and that can be significantly felt. Thankfully, that occurs seldom, much like the occasional slightly shoddy CG.

For all the praise or criticism I’ve attributed to Black Panther, there is something bigger to it. Unlike most comic book movies, this one has several important things on its mind; running through and below the surface of the narrative. Black Panther contains several allegories about human nature. There historical references to Imperialism, specifically how the continent of Africa was mistreated. Imperialism and how humans have and are still abusing each other as a whole is an obvious point in this film. Thankfully, the film also looks at humanity and how we have the potential to improve ourselves as a whole. Sadly, we currently live in a country and a world where things seem dire. I wake up every day, hoping for the best for humanity; but fearing for the worst. That, dear reader, is a terrible way to feel as I’m sure most of you know. However, Black Panther manages to acknowledge that these are times we live in, while at the same time illustrating the positive potential for humanity. Thus, it goes beyond being just a morality tale. That is why I think that Black Panther is the most important comic book film that’s been made thus far.
If you took a look at the box-office receipts from this movie’s opening weekend, you know it’s exceeding all predictions. Even in the current market, making nearly $300 million worldwide in less than a week is amazing! There’s no doubt that Black Panther is going beyond the already established audience the genre has built-up. In fact, going to the theater will show you one thing. Folks of all colors, creeds, races, and religions are leaving their houses and coming together in a theater to see this picture. If you weren’t planning to see Black Panther theatrically, I implore you to please go against that inclination. I assure you, seeing this flick with an audience is the best way to experience it. Oh, and do me a favor if you go see it. As the lights come up and everybody makes their exit, remember that we’re all this together. If we treat each other well; maybe, just maybe, we can grow together and evolve.

And he will return along with the rest of The MCU AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR PART I, IN THEATERS ON MAY 4!

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