Before the comic book movie became the ultimate cookie-cutter pop culture phenomenon that it is now, its source material provided writers a medium to express their dissatisfaction with the world around them. The X-Men were metaphorical outsiders with a good tinge of anti-Semitism portrayed in the way humans treated them. Professor Charles Xavier would later be compared to Martin Luther King and his struggles in political and social activism. Marvel would grow over the years and use the term ‘mutants’ to encompass many a minority in its characters, allowing readers and fans a safe space in some manner.
But as any subculture that grows, the backlash has been there. For years, Marvel Comics has been accused of “pandering,” by shoehorning characters into roles just to please fans. Ms Marvel, Iceman, Spidey – all have had minority representation at some point, sacrificing some years of history, much to the displeasure of some fans. Whether or not Marvel has written the characters in well is another story (and a much longer rant from Sean) but when it comes to the Marvel films, we’ve grown quite used to a certain type of film.
Entertaining as they are, Marvel films often have the standard ingredients of mainstream success – good-looking folk, hero complexes and a very bad guy that does bad things for bad reasons, eg. eating planets, enslaving human race, making money, etc. The contrast between good and bad is fairly obvious and viewers are meant to side with the good guys whether it be smarmy Tony Stark or charming Star-Lord (who?).
This is where Black Panther honestly surprised us the most.
At the heart of the story, good and bad aren’t quite polar opposites as they seem. T’Challa, played by Patrick Boseman, is the titular hero, taking up the mantle after his father’s passing in Captain America: Civil War. He’s the newly crowned king in the fictitious Wakanda and seeks to preserve the sanctuary for what it is, refusing to help the outside world and the hell it may be in. Wakanda, home to vibranium (the material that Cap’s shield is made of), is hidden away from the rest of the world. If America is a first world country, Wakanda tops that – a technologically advanced society at home in its beautiful forests.
Challenging his helm however is Michael B. Jordan as N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. Killmonger has equal rights to the throne, a shameful secret about his deceased father that T’Challa is forced to face in the film. Growing up in the ghettos in America, Killmonger’s motivation is the antithesis to T’Challa, seeking to use Wakanda’s technology to improve the lives of “their people” across the world who have been forgotten by Wakanda and T’Challa. It’s no coincidence of course that in the film, Killmonger grew up in Oakland California, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party.
For most of the people we talked to after the film, Killmonger’s ideals were not quite wrong, providing a bit of grey area for viewers to debate the right and wrong of his actions.
Sure, the folk in Singapore might not be able to identify with the racial politics in Black Panther but minorities everywhere will no doubt be able to identify with never having the right or good representation in mainstream cinema. Hell, the good folk at Mediacorp still haven’t found a way to have a Malay character speaking normal English on Channel 5 so we know how it feels. For African-Americans who have always had their characters portrayed as slaves, terrorists, gangbangers, sidekicks – Black Panther represents a whole new level of representation. An almost all-black cast with the exception of Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, it’s a dream come true for many. As Roy Wood Jr on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah commented, “…because it’s nice to have a black movie that’s not about slavery, singing or slinging dope. It’s just a fun fantasy film. And the fantasy isn’t even that outlandish. For black people, good fantasy is just us chilling in Africa, having a good time.”
It’s not just race, of course. Some of the most bad-assed characters in Black Panther were the women, led by Lupita Nyong’O as T’Challa’s love interest and Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces as well as Ayo, played by Florence Kasumba (above). Letitia Wright plays Shuri, the younger sister of T’Challa who designs most of the technology around for Wakanda, is another example of an excellent role model for young black girls who have long been underrepresented.
Okay, it didn’t exactly have the 30-odd Marvel characters coming together to kick ass that The Avengers: Infinity War will have later this year but it did well introducing Wakandan technology, that we suspect will play a very heavy role in arming The Avengers against Thanos. Another aspect of the director, Ryan Coogler’s vision for the film was the exquisite attention to detail across the costumes, adornments – all paying tribute to real tribes in Africa. Plenty of money was invested in the vision and it’s something that the public should give kudos to Marvel and Disney for.
All in all, we’re big fans of good storylines that force us to think a little. It helps that the characters feel well-fleshed out and relatable in certain aspects, without never feeling too much like complete stereotypes. We’ve heard from friends around us, “Oh, I don’t like politics in a film. I just want to watch something entertaining.” We feel that watching a film shouldn’t always be a comfortable two and a half hours of your life. It should pose a question and make you think a little at least.