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Black Panther reinvents the superhero origin story in a profound way

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Black Panther reinvents the superhero origin story in a profound way

We’ve all seen a lot of bloated, meandering superhero movies over the past year, stuffed with exhaustingly large super teams and unmemorable villains. So what makes Black Panther a welcome change isn’t just its hero, whose charisma and gravitas are undeniable, but that it is an elegantly structured adventure. The stakes are high, the reveals make sense, and the payoff is satisfying. This is the way superhero movies should be done.

Plus, the secret nation of Wakanda has tech that’s way more inventive than anything Tony Stark has produced lately.


Most audiences met T’Challa (the superlative Chadwick Boseman) during Captain America: Civil War, when a blast at the UN killed the then-prince’s father. Still, Black Panther is very much an origin story. T’Challa has long had the super strength of the Black Panther, which comes from eating the Heart-Shaped Herb that grows out of vibranium caches. Now he needs to take the throne of Wakanda and decide whether his nation will assume a place on the world stage or continue to hide its true nature. All his bad guy challengers, from vibranium thief Klaue (Andy Serkis) to military insurgent Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, in an equally charismatic performance), are in some sense related to Wakanda’s foreign policy.

Usually a superhero origin story is one of progressive alienation and loneliness: Spider-man has to distance himself from people he loves; Wonder Woman leaves her kingdom on Themiscyra; Hulk has to keep everyone out of his blast radius, etc. But for T’Challa to become Black Panther, he must fully join with the community of Wakanda and guide it in the right direction. In this way, Black Panther offers an interesting counterpoint to Batman and Superman, who have secretive and deeply conflicted relationships to Gotham and Metropolis. T’Challa is the rightful and public leader of Wakanda, and thus his origin story is also fundamentally about how to build a new nation.

This turns out to be a lot harder than hand-to-hand combat. The older generation of Wakandans push for separatism. The nation has kept its culture and technology safe for thousands of years by closing itself off from the world. But Klaue and Killmonger threaten to expose its secrets, leaving Wakanda vulnerable to the predatory colonialism that’s ravaging other African nations. In a sense, the true Big Bad of this film isn’t any one person—and indeed, we wind up feeling some sympathy for Killmonger—it’s the threat of national instability.

This sounds like heady stuff, and it is. But director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and the cast handle it with humor as well as pathos. At one point T’Challa’s mad scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) greets the bemused Everett with a sardonic, “Hello, colonizer!” And though Black Panther tends to be fairly earnest, Killmonger and M’Baku also get a lot of snarky zingers. We never feel like this is a “message” film, even though arguably it is. The light tone and snappy adventure plot pull us through, reminding audiences that this is a story about hope and heroism, not dystopia.

Priest’s Panther

At T’Challa’s side are a ton of outstanding characters: Danai Gurira is tough and regal as Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite, all-female fighting force; Letitia Wright is sweet and dorky as the geek with a million super-gadgets; Daniel Kaluuya, who won hearts as the lead in Get Out , is excellent as T’Challa’s ambivalent best friend W’Kabi; and Winston Duke steals the show as the grumpy but good-humored M’Baku, who leads Wakanda’s most distant tribal group. On top of all that star power, there’s also Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), dubbed “the whitest man in the world” in the comics, playing a good-hearted, befuddled intelligence agent. The more we get to know these characters, the more we realize that the people who question T’Challa the most are often his greatest allies. It’s a nice touch. Wakanda is not a nation of sycophants.

To reinvent Black Panther for the twenty-first century, Coogler relied heavily on the 1998-2003 comics written by Priest. During his run, Priest explored many of the key themes of the film, including T’Challa’s role as king of Wakanda. He introduced the Dora Milaje, who are central to the film’s action, as well as an earlier version of the character M’Baku. And the dorky-but-good intelligence agent Everett K. Ross was Priest’s attempt to create a version of the Friends character Chandler .

We can also thank Priest for bringing nuance to T’Challa’s character. Our hero-king is torn between wanting to protect Wakanda and his deep sense of social justice. Should he focus on protecting his country’s wealth or help the downtrodden people of the African diaspora, suffering throughout the world? To dramatize this, the film sets several pivotal scenes in Oakland, California—where the Black Panther Party was born—and contrasts it with the safe, affluent world of Wakanda.

Wakanda as Utopia

Wakanda is also one of the greatest visual achievements of this film, though not in a way that’s immediately obvious if you’re focused on all the fight scenes and vibranium weapons. As both Coogler and Boseman have noted in interviews, Black Panther is about imagining what amounts to an alternate timeline for Africa, one where its nations developed futuristic technology without any interference from European colonizers.

The result is technology that incorporates common African tribal designs and symbolism as well as traditional ways of life. Wakanda is an Afro-futurist ecotopia, a smart city unlike anything we’ve seen in big-budget movies before. Gleaming skyscrapers and maglev trains co-exist with pastoral herdsmen and packed-earth streets. Machine interfaces use vivid colors (none of Apple’s muted metals here), and holographic displays seem to rustle like feathers as they transform.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s interesting to compare this city with Gotham or even Metropolis, both of which have become tattered, dirty, crumbling messes in recent films. Black Panther shows us what true, uncompromising heroism looks like, but it also tries to suggest what a good society would look like, too. The place feels lived in and real, not like some sparkly place in Asgard. When you watch this movie, take a moment to savor what we see of Wakanda—it’s a rare attempt to represent Utopia at a time when most superhero movies have gone grimdark.

Ultimately, T’Challa has to do more than just keep Utopia clean. Thanks to their rich vibranium mine, Wakanda’s science and technology have developed at a much faster rate than other parts of the world. They have healing pods that look like cooler versions of a Star Trek medical bay and an AR system that lets you “drive” any vehicle (including fighter jets) from Shuri’s lab. Plus, they can build ultra-strong armor that pops out of a necklace.

If T’Challa decides to show Wakanda to the world, his nation will likely become the new “developed world,” and Europe will fall behind. Beneath every vibranium-tinged struggle and every boss fight lurks a question about the moral duty of a nation. Should its leader hide behind “Wakanda First” and keep its riches for himself? Or, should he give what he can to make the entire world a better place?

Thanks to this smart, deftly told yarn, we get satisfying and complex answers. And we’re left wanting more—all hail the new King of Wakanda!

Listing image by Marvel Studios


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Author Annalee Newitz

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