Superhero movies are not my go-to genre of choice. The fiery explosions, the prescriptive romances, the bulging muscles — I can find other ways to burn two hours (and 15 bucks). Good thing “Black Panther” isn’t your typical superhero movie.
Sure, there’s a rare mineral from outer space that bestows superhuman qualities on any who drink its essence. And there’s plenty of wizbang tech that makes our hero — T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) — nearly invincible. “Black Panther” even has a car chase.
The movie also has something many superhero movies don’t: a plot.
“Black Panther” doesn’t rely on flashy gimmicks or tired tropes to make its point. The movie is more subtle than that.
And subtlety, as T’Challa shows us, is where true strength lies.
To pack 134 minutes of plot into a paragraph: “Black Panther” is set in the country of Wakanda. The nation in Africa is the home of a huge deposit of the extremely powerful metal vibranium. The Wakandans have spent centuries refining vibranium into any number of technological marvels and, in doing so, have far-surpassed the prowess of outside countries — not that the world knows it.
Wakanda presents as a non-industrialized country, a controversial choice among the Wakandans, some of who believe the country should share its research and riches with the world. Yes, you read that right: “Black Panther” makes geopolitics cool.
And what of our hero? As the newly crowned king of Wakanda, T’Challa joins the ranks of the rulers before him by ingesting a specific herb affected by vibranium. This turns him into a Black Panther, a.k.a. a human with superhuman abilities including speed and strength. It also makes him a target of both competitors at home and abroad.
Cue conflict on a national scale and, eventually, a global one.
But get this: In one of the very first battles T’Challa faces — against a tribal leader who seeks the Wakandan throne — per the rules of Wakandan ritual combat, T’Challa must be stripped of his Black Panther powers to meet the challenger on equal terms.
It’s a strategy the movie uses several times: Remove the “super” in “superhero.” What’s that leave? A hero.
Many have also celebrated “Black Panther.” The “New York Times” praises the film for “shaking up the Marvel universe.” It has an 88 out of 100 on the esteemed review site Metacritic and has raked in $700 million in two weeks. But we shouldn’t only recognize the movie’s glowing headlines (however much I’d like to).
Just as Wonder Woman didn’t upend gender stereotypes with a flick of her Lasso of Truth, neither does Black Panther provide proof of racism’s defeat.
In doing research for this article, I read a review by Chris Lebron, an associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and author of “The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea.” His review — ”’Black Panther’ Is Not the Movie We Deserve” — makes a point that I, a suburbia-raised white woman living in Seattle, hadn’t thought of: “A movie unique for its black star power depends on a shocking devaluation of black American men.”
He’s talking about the main villain in “Black Panther:” Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Avoiding spoilers, Killmonger was born and raised in Oakland, California, and, in many ways, embodies the stereotypes associated with a black man of the American inner city.
Or, as Lebron writes, “We are given a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles. They safeguard virtue and goodness against the threat not of white Americans or Europeans, but a black American man, the most dangerous person in the world.”
Lebron’s points remind me of ones I made in my review of “Wonder Woman.” I felt that movie didn’t go far enough in discussing the very themes many felt it honored: feminism, gender equality, independence. But, just as I conceded in that review, at least it was better than nothing. Lebron’s review reminds me that better than nothing still doesn’t mean good enough.
So yes, take your kids to see “Black Panther.” It was the most enjoyable movie of any genre that I’ve seen in a while. The acting is superb, the characters nuanced, the plot strong. But just as Wonder Woman didn’t upend gender stereotypes with a flick of her Lasso of Truth, neither does Black Panther provide proof of racism’s defeat.
The movie is a step in the right direction but still a step. And it’s on us — ticket-buying moviegoers — to demand we keep moving forward. Let us continue to demand more of our stories so that, eventually, we get the ones we deserve.
Age recommendation for 'Black Panther'"Black Panther" is rated PG-13; Common Sense Media recommends it for ages 12 and above. It’s an action film with limited gore (I don’t believe I saw blood once) but there are plenty of explosions, gunfire and, in a couple scenes, death. Sex isn’t hinted at beyond a passionate kiss near the end.
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