Superheroes are a salve for children—traditionally boys—who struggle to integrate into their childhood societies. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that superhero movies have become increasingly central to the plastic cathedral of American pop culture during the same years that American boyhood has consumed much of what was once, by the lights of biology, considered to be manhood. Nor does it seem a coincidence that, in those same years, men’s feeling of enfranchisement in adult society has decayed.
Disenfranchisement is, of course, a wound of literal rather than figurative consequence in this country for women, black people, and both. The appeal of Black Panther is in watching the metronome ticking between revolution and inclusion rustle the wrappers of a Happy Meal. It asks questions at the bottom of political distinctions through the sleek music of African accents, which dignify the stiff lines only half as well as Daniel Kaluuya withdraws the wings of his devotion. His eyelashes, like stage-curtain tassels, brush Chadwick Boseman aside. Boseman wears his pride in his bones.
On occasion, Ryan Coogler finds set pieces that live up to the power of his ideas: Michael B. Jordan, as the warrior-king Killmonger, returning to his childhood home in an Oakland project, at the exact moment his younger self discovered his father dead, has a doleful magic. There’s an essential unprofanity to Jordan which makes him impossible to not take seriously, even if Killmonger’s grievances are too notional. Boseman, the superhero king, on his own vision quest, pieces together the tragedy on Killmonger’s behalf; his outrage over a displaced father figure abandoning a son seems pointed. The Black Panther himself is probably the only one whose motives aren’t telegraphed. In a Marvel movie, profundity is only cape-deep.
Coogler doesn’t have the canvas of Game of Thrones, with its insights into feudal politics and the motivations of Machiavellian actors; the genre he’s working in doesn’t have the same prerogatives. But, as an expansive and pliable metaphor, I admire the concept of Wakanda, which originated with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the ’60s, but Coogler makes his own. An African paradise which hides its untold riches from the rest of the world under the subterfuge of crippling poverty—in simple terms, Wakanda is the United States without democracy or diversity (though we flaunt rather than hide our wealth). The film urgently challenges us to define what constitutes a community or a nation state and what we owe to those within that group and without. Black Panther takes the lived experience of being oppressed and personifies that struggle into: what makes a good king? Or, framing it as Killmonger might: do black lives matter more? Between the superhero statesman T’Challa and the despot Killmonger we have two familiar poles: Martin Luther King, Jr., on the one side, and Malcolm X on the other.
Coogler, working with untold riches he’d never had access to before, is a good king over this lavish domain. The pacing, like the editing, is crisp; we know whose spear is in which combatant’s hand on the battlefield. If, as I suspect, the digital waterfalls and the azure vibranium mines won’t date well, the Afro-futuristic costume design—particularly the crimson ribbing of the all-female royal guard—will. So too a barroom brawl that’s tracked like an Alphonso Cuarón bender; ancestral ghosts on a lavender veld; and a headlock at the edge of a cliff with the victor’s sense of mercy pinned down by custom: he begs the loser to relent. Occasional snippets of performance art flesh out the comic-book pulp: the stakes of defeat in Jordan’s dimming eyes; Danai Gurira mourning the loss of her country with Lupita Nyong’o but affirming her duty to it. Wakanda as America lives inside of her.