Black Panther is out now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital. I’ll put a spoiler alert just in case you haven’t seen it, but only reluctantly.
Our reverence for tradition bears some conceptual resemblance to the saying, “Old habits die hard.” Tradition helps us structure our daily lives just as much as it helps us celebrate our cultural values. That being said, there’s also merit in upending old traditions and establishing newer, better ones. A recent custom we’ve adopted here in the United States has been to bash superhero films as art forms, labeling them “silly adventures” that do little more than entertain. In fact, to say that superhero films lack themes or takeaways is to dismiss them as art altogether. The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has taken heat from ardent DCEU fans, casual viewers, and even some Marvel fans for allegedly functioning as “surface level entertainment.” The thing is, that’s true. It’s just not the whole truth. Depending on how and where you want to stress your mental faculties, the MCU can stop or start as blockbuster entertainment. It can be what you want it to be. However, the argument for the MCU as a thoughtful, thematic series of stories is a solid one, and the easiest way to begin that argument is to examine cause and effect in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.
A quick recap before we get started: T’Chaka kills his brother after he finds that the latter has been selling vibranium to arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. This leaves his nephew, Erik “Killmonger” Stevenson, orphaned. When T’Challa and Erik finally meet, it’s a clash of ideals and, more importantly, a battle against the traditions that shaped the pair as people. The true opponent in Black Panther is tradition; do we submit to it or change it as needed? The film thinks the latter is the way to go.
As one would expect, Killmonger’s ascension to temporary king of Wakanda comes with its own consequences. It takes a vengeful ex-operative winning his way to the throne and overhauling Wakandan procedure for T’Challa to realize his current MO isn’t working. Without Killmonger, the young king wouldn’t have learned to champion the oppressed. His father also helped with that, but more on that later.
There was a key piece of information that flew under Erik’s radar. Nobody told Killmonger that his father moved to kill Zuri, that T’Chaka was simply protecting his stalwart. The thing is, it really wouldn’t have mattered. The seeds of hate sown into Killmonger’s soul would have been there regardless. He was still abandoned. Still orphaned.
The real kicker? Everyone in Wakanda still refers to him as an outsider. Even when he’s claimed the throne fairly, he’s still rejected. Removed. Cast out in the minds of those so set in their ways that they can’t see a hurt boy trapped in a man’s body. That’s bound to cause some issues, and it certainly does.
The franchise has begun to focus on depicting father/son troubles as catalysts for personal growth, a storytelling stroke that adds dimension to these characters and their journeys. The events of Coogler’s critically adored film create some serious friction between T’Challa and his father, T’Chaka. An inferior franchise would have shied away from such a shattering revelation because the falling out between a father and a son is uncomfortable to watch and experience.
T’Challa’s inner turmoil is unique in that it stems not from his father failing him, but from his father failing someone else. This is going to be out of left field, but his disappointment in his father can be likened to Harry Potter’s disgust at his father for spending years bullying Severus Snape. James hadn’t wronged Harry himself, but he had tarnished his son’s view of him by inflicting years of pain on another human being. It’s late-onset disappointment, sure, but it’s profound and it influences T’Challa’s decision to fundamentally change Wakanda’s stance on foreign relations. Killmonger’s daddy issues stick closer to the definition of the term. Ya know, minus the whole “father being murdered by his brother” thing. That would mess anyone up.
Without his father’s blunders, T’Challa would never have walked his own path, would never have become a different kind of king. He would never have shown a dying Killmonger the level of compassion that he did. He would never have launched a Wakandan outreach program from the same building in which his uncle was killed and his cousin was reborn a monster. The movie matters because T’Challa learns to act from his heart, not his father’s. If he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie.
That’s exactly what T’Challa does. He keeps the traditions he values and scraps the ones he sees as detrimental to Wakanda as a participating nation. Disney and Marvel seem to be on a “Your heroes can be dicks” kick; Disney did it with Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Marvel has done it with a handful of their recent efforts. It’s a mature way to tell fans, “Nobody is as perfect as they seemed in our childhoods.” Disney has finally grown up with its audience, and it’s about damn time.
Black Panther is a triumph for those who need it and a damn good movie to boot. It’s this type of layered storytelling that elevates superhero films to true art forms and proves that blockbusters can say something.