What can even be said about Black Panther that hasn’t already been touched on? There are hundreds of think pieces and articles, written by much smarter and better informed people than me, that go into full detail on why this film is such a big deal and so important. Black Panther was an immediate worldwide success that is currently still going. It’s a cultural phenomenon. It didn’t just change the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or even Hollywood, it changed everything. People may complain that Black Panther became what it is only because of its cultural significance in our current “PC” climate, but that’s plain insulting. Black Panther is a damn good film, starring an incredible cast and directed by a brilliant filmmaker, Ryan Coogler. It earned all that it’s been praised for, and Marvel clearly had enormous faith in it, putting most of the action in Wakanda for Infinity War and bringing back nearly every single character.
First off, yeah, Killmonger is right. Erik Killmonger is the nephew of the king of Wakanda, T’Chaka. Erik’s father betrays Wakanda, stealing their precious vibranium to arm the black minorities of the United States. “I observed for as long as I could. Their leaders have been assassinated. Communities flooded with drugs and weapons. They are overly policed and incarcerated. All over the planet, our people suffer because they don’t have the tools to fight back. With vibranium weapons they can overthrow all countries, and Wakanda can rule them all, the right way!” Yes, Black Panther goes all in with its political commentary, more so than any previous Marvel film ever dared. In the time of the Trump administration, with kneeling football players and countless protests against police killings of unarmed black men, the messages of the film are more bold and impactful than they would be if the film had been released even just a year or two earlier.
Erik’s father is killed for what T’Chaka considers a betrayal; Wakanda chooses to practice isolationism, keeping their existence and advanced technology hidden from the rest of the world to protect their own. T’Chaka then leaves Erik, a Wakandan of royal blood, alone in the U.S. to fend for himself. As mentioned by his father, the United States of America isn’t the best place to live and grow up if you’re a minority, and Erik’s struggles in a hostile country shape him into the man he eventually becomes. It radicalizes him. “Everyone dies. That’s just life around here.” Erik is very quickly desensitized to violence and death, both in his experiences as a child and his time as a U.S. black-ops soldier.
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” This mantra, spoken by civil rights leader Malcolm X, is roughly the ideology that Killmonger adopts. He believes in what he’s been taught and what he has practiced while working for the military: Colonialism. He wants a hostile takeover of every country, an uprising against the oppressive governments that have kept his brothers and sisters beaten down. It’s ironic, sure, but his radical need for revenge is justified. He holds deep hatred and anger for the way that his people have been mistreated throughout the world, and his focus is on Wakanda, who left him and every other black man and woman to suffer, never extending their hand to help. “You’re all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. There’s about two billion people around the world who look like us and their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.”
Killmonger believes in fighting fire with fire, in direct opposition to T’Challa and his ideals. T’Challa becomes the new king of Wakanda after the death of his father, and he wants to honor him and hold on to the traditions of his country and its people. When Killmonger arrives in Wakanda, T’Challa stubbornly doubles down on his beliefs, refusing to even listen to what his cousin has to say. His decision to remain unyielding ends up costing him the throne; Killmonger defeats him in combat and takes over the country, immediately putting his plans for a new world order in motion.
T’Challa loses everything, his throne, his kingdom, the life of his mentor, Zuri, and the support and trust of his best friend, W’Kabi. W’Kabi lost his parents to the murderous Ulysses Klaue, and has seen first-hand the passivity and inaction that Wakanda partakes in. When his best friend T’Challa takes the throne, he believes it’s time for real change. But T’Challa also fails to bring Klaue to justice, making W’Kabi realize that things are only going to remain the same. He throws his full support behind Killmonger and his regime, even when it puts him in conflict with his lover, Okoye, because he’s inspired by Killmonger’s call to immediate action and sweeping change.
Okoye and W’Kabi represent two different stances on what it means to be loyal to the throne and the country. Okoye is close to T’Challa, and is horrified by Killmonger’s takeover, but believes that her duty to the throne is sacred, and refuses to leave Wakanda, following Killmonger’s cause, even though she doesn’t believe in it. When she sees that T’Challa is actually still alive, and the challenge for the throne incomplete, she and the rest of her women warriors fall back in line with the rightful king, proving their loyalty. W’Kabi refuses to acknowledge T’Challa’s return, even though his survival means that Killmonger should not have ever been crowned king. He sticks with Killmonger because he is emotionally compromised, abandoning the Wakandan beliefs in favor of his own.
When T’Challa challenges Killmonger for the throne once again, it isn’t just to put things back the way they were. He now knows that Wakanda does have to change, and that Killmonger is right. It’s not right that Wakanda has been flourishing in their paradise for so long whilst others have been suffering. It isn’t just Killmonger that puts these ideas into T’Challa’s head. His love interest, Nakia, has long disapproved of Wakanda’s isolationist policies. She views them as obstacles that hold Wakanda back from making the world a better place. She works as a spy for the country, and while her duties are mostly espionage, she can’t sit idly by while others need help, consistently getting involved in the conflicts of other countries in order to help others. T’Challa and Okoye find her at the beginning of the film as she’s aiding Nigerian trafficking victims. She tells T’Challa at one point “You can’t let your father’s mistakes define who you are. You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.” Even T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, represents a new age of ideas and moving on from the policies of the old. She’s someone who scoffs at tradition but doesn’t exactly disrespect it, teaching her brother that “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
T’Challa learns that Wakanda does have a responsibility to help the rest of the world, but through diplomacy rather than Killmonger’s violent ways. The film ends with him going against Wakanda’s ancient beliefs, opening the country’s doors and revealing themselves to the outside world, ready to share their knowledge and resources. “Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not,” T’Challa declares. “We will work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
This philosophy could (and should) be interpreted as a direct response to the current day Trump administration and their views for how the United States should be run. Trump’s “America First” policies and his promise to build a wall on its borders are reflected in Wakanda’s own isolationist ideals. In one of the most affecting scenes of the film, T’Challa confronts his father and ancestors while in the ancestral plane. “All of you were wrong. For turning your backs on the rest of the world. We let the fear of our discovery stop us from what doing what is right. No more. I cannot stay here with you. I must right this wrong.” T’Challa blames his ancestors for the horrors of today, calling out their isolationism as the wrong idea and the cause of too much suffering. The enforcement of these policies are the real villain, not Killmonger himself. “He is a monster of our own making.”
T’Challa breaks from tradition in another way as well. He is the first king to set foot in the territory of the Jabari tribe, a group of Wakandans who removed themselves from mainstream society, disagreeing with their ideas and use of vibranium. Their leader, M’Baku, challenges T’Challa for the throne at the start of the film. He loses, but T’Challa shows that he’s a good man by not killing M’Baku, telling him that his people need him. M’Baku goes on to save T’Challa’s life and assist him in defeating Killmonger, ending with him gaining a seat, and a voice, on the Tribal Council. T’Challa’s outreach to the Jabari tribe and not being too proud or stubborn to ask them for help when he needs it unites Wakanda in a way that it hasn’t been for centuries.
Black Panther is a feat. It’s afrofuturism, mixed with science fiction, mixed with James Bond-style spying and gadgets, and even goes into full fantasy territory with the final battle taking place on the plains of Wakanda with war rhinos, and the concepts of the heart-shaped herb and the ancestral plane. It has a superb cast, and every character gets their moment to shine and stand out. There’s no character that falls by the wayside. The action is spectacular (that casino fight though), the soundtrack is incredible, the costumes, make-up and set designs are astounding, and Erik Killmonger instantly became the greatest and most sympathetic villain Marvel has had to offer. This film is also the Marvel story that stands on its own the most; there is absolutely no need to have seen any previous films in the MCU, and there are no major connections to the rest of the universe in it.
Ryan Coogler is a master filmmaker, and this is his masterpiece. I can only imagine what this film must have meant and continues to mean to people. Sitting in the theater to watch this was an experience. There was an almost tangible energy around everyone every time I watched it. We were witnessing history. Black Panther was a landmark for popular culture, shooting past the billion dollar mark at the box office in only a couple of weeks, securing its spot in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios and the mastermind / godfather of the MCU, has called it “the best movie we’ve ever made.” As I sat in that dark theater, looking over at a young boy next to me, dressed head to toe in his Black Panther costume, with his dad next to him bobbing his head whenever the soundtrack played, I couldn’t help but smile. It probably is the best movie they’ve ever made.