Marvel Salutes Black Panther
by Rick Johnson
First let’s give it up to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for giving black folks a seat at the super hero table with The Black Panther. Second let’s give it up to young director Ryan Coogler’s directorial performance, whom at the age of 31 displayed chops of a far more experienced filmmaker.
The Black Panther produces a wide range of Afrocentric imagery and characters presented in a way that balances fantasy with cultural authenticity. The look of Africa and the characters make it difficult to take your eyes off the screen even for a moment, which is to be expected from Marvel.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When these guys embarked on creating a black super hero over fifty years ago, black people had yet to know Richard Pryor, Oprah, or Eddie Murphy. So clearly this was a bold and risky move for its time by Marvel. To this fact, the Black Panther should be expected to contain subtle elements of political correctness that insures even the most conservative movie goer, walks away feeling, “comfortable”. The Black Panther is a non-traditional comic book super hero as his main agenda is never to rescue “America”, but to preserve Wakanda. This is a key element which ultimately must feel less threatening to those attached to more “traditional” images of American super heroes.
While comic book super heroes are not all created equal, Black Panther has carried so much baggage over his 50 year development that his identity seems not as grounded as other Marvel Characters. Perhaps it’s his classification as a “super hero” that teases expectations of fighting the usual suspects of criminals and terrorists. In this category The Black Panther would be “super-hero light” as his character is challenged with upholding and maintaining his legacy, while protecting the nations extraterrestrial mineral, vibranium.
At the end of the day two talented guys writing a character called Black Panther should require some input by black creatives, and Coogler and Joe Robert Cole certainly deliver. The nemesis Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan provides the contemporary voice to make the story relevant while not being too preachy.
While we all appreciate Lee and Kirby for The Black Panther, it should have been a given. After all some of the world’s best athletes are men of color, so in my humble opinion a black super hero is, well, a no-brainer. In addition research has shown comic books are enjoyed by kids of all races. Ok, so you sit down and create a black super hero, and the first question is -what powers should he have right? After all, at the core of any super hero are his powers. Superman needs to fly, Spiderman needs to hang, and Iron Man can do damn near everything. But somewhere in the super hero writer’s room, The Black Panther did not come out with any specific powers, other than those provided by the mineral vibranium.
To that purpose, the Black Panther’s suit absorbs sound and energy. From a physics standpoint that’s an interesting play on the color black, as dark objects “absorb” light while white objects “reflect” light. And while most Marvel Super Heroes are constantly fiddling with their powers and abilities, Black Panther is not so much defined by his Panther powers alone. The important distinction here is that Black Panther is a leader of men, responsible for maintaining the wealth and independence of his nation, Wakanda.
The Black Panther’s identity is not a secret the way most traditional super heroes are, which given its socio-cultural foundation insures he is not a black man in hiding. These are interesting aspects where race and fiction are handled to protect us from the proverbial stereotyping. In other words, race is handled to project his individuality rather than a generic form of representation. So Marvel did their best to insure we don’t get just another black man in a cape.
That said, Black Panther does not identify with a specific set of skills or professional background. Are these important? Well they seem awfully important to other super hero profiles. We know Spider Man is a smart student, Iron Man a rich brilliant scientist, Bruce Banner is also a scientist, even Batman is a rich philanthropist. So again, in the super hero writers room someone decided that he would have no expertise or profession? I’m just sayin’.
I also hoped for more Black Panther feats of amazement and superior fighting agility. The hand to hand combat was realistic and worked well, yet not typical super hero gravity defying acts of acrobatics. While I enjoyed the fight scenes, Panther needs more super hero tools at his disposal-like Jason Statham, what you say?
In Mechanic 2 Statham fights off 10 armed bad guys, kills half of them, escapes to the roof of a ski gondola, survives bullets coming through the roof, and jumps from the gondola onto the “top of a flying hang glider in mid air”. And he’s not even a super hero.
The film is beautiful to look at and Director of Photography Rachel Morrison deserves some accolades here. The city of Wakanda is a magical hidden metropolis powered on vibranium- a Star Trekien Egypt-like environment. Overall the special effects were somewhat conservative, but worked well considering the fact the film is positioned as more of an action drama, versus a lot of gratuitous computer generated eye candy.
My overall rating of this movie is 4.7 out of 5 stars as the high action Marvel formula of special effects felt light on screen time. The fight scenes were more realistic, which worked great as an action drama, but less exciting for a genuine bonafide super hero movie. Clearly the outcome of budgetary limitations compared to other Marvel franchise productions.
But Marvel knows exactly what it’s doing with Black Panther. All of these elements contribute to the overall strategy to present Black Panther as outside the world of traditional superheros. While rooting him in Africa was a profound idea, it also seems a bit confining and territorial for a super hero.
My point is simply this, Marvel is not going to produce a film without insuring the general market audience is “comfortable”. At some point in the distant past, Marvel must have believed producing an American black super hero named Black Panther, was going to “intimidate” some folk. Clearly, the African backdrop removes this association, while also removing the American equivalent, Killmonger. As the drama continues, there are many recognizing Killmonger as a hero in his own right. As Batman used to say “perhaps it’s not the last we hear from” Killmonger again.