Black Panther: Superheroes With Actual Substance
Unlike previous superhero blockbusters, the story of Black Panther tackles real world issues rather than stopping alien invaders from destroying the world. It is a battle between the haves and have nots and isolationism and engagement. Writer/director Ryan Coogler expertly combines an engaging story with real life implications through the two main characters who represent opposing sides of society.
The protagonist of the story is T’Challa, a young man thrust into responsibility when his King father dies suddenly. After winning his seat on the throne, he finds his new position troubling; power brings new responsibility, especially relating to Wakanda’s impressive technological breakthroughs which involves weaponry, medicine, and communication. T’Challa struggles to decide whether to share these breakthroughs with surrounding nations, potentially putting the longtime peace of his home at risk. As he ponders his options, an antagonist arrives: Erik Killmonger. His outlook is clear; black people all over the world have been mistreated for centuries and Wakanda’s technology will help them revolt. This difference in opinion is one of the most important issues presented in the film.
Killmonger’s character represents the oppressed. In "Man Of The Hour’s" Film & TV section, Danilo Castro describes them as “T'Challa, the pensive Martin Luther King, Jr. to [Killmonger’s] angry Malcolm X.” Growing up in poverty in the United States, every stage of his life was incredibly difficult. He grew up without parents, saw racism and hate all around him, and made himself into a human weapon as a defense mechanism. Killmonger made it his life mission to destroy his oppressors.
T’Challa’s life was the opposite. He was raised as royalty in a hidden, futuristic utopia, free from everything that plagued Killmonger; his life in Wakanda was better in every way. Although he wanted to help the rest of the world, T’Challa was afraid of putting his country at risk. Sharing powerful technology with other nations could create serious adversaries. As a result, he carried on with the isolationism Wakanda practiced for many centuries. T’Challa and Wakanda had the means to change the world but chose not to because of fear.
Even though T’Challa becomes the superhero Black Panther, Killmonger is the real star of this movie as the ultimate redemption story. Growing up as an orphan, Killmonger battles through endless adversity to reach Wakanda as a hero; he devotes his entire life to fighting oppression of his people. His plan to share Wakanda’s technology with the oppressed is the most human choice. While his plan is overly aggressive, his ethos of helping those that need it most is the right decision. As Castro puts it Killmonger “sees it as Wakanda’s duty to liberate black people throughout the world, to share the wealth and the comfort they have kept to themselves for so long.” Even as the villain, it’s difficult not to root for Killmonger after passing every challenge over the course of his life.
Even when Killmonger dies at the end of the film, he sticks by his beliefs. Rather than be saved, he chooses to die, becoming a martyr for his cause. T’Challa ultimately chooses to share Wakanda’s technology with the world, adopting Killmonger’s goals with a peaceful twist. His decision to interact with the rest of the planet was because of Killmonger’s passion. While T’Challa didn’t agree with the violent nature, he understood that it was the necessary choice to benefit all of humanity. Killmonger was able to change the mindset of an entire nation.
Black Panther has also been universally celebrated for using a cast of almost entirely black actors. In a majority-white Hollywood, it was refreshing to see actual diversity. An important change that hasn’t received as much focus is Black Panther’s powerful females. Okoye, Wakanda’s general and most skilled fighter, is a woman. T’Challa’s sister Shuri is the Q to his James Bond; she oversees Wakanda’s technology. Especially in superhero movies, the strongest characters are almost always male. Even though Black Panther has been well received, its cultural impact makes it more important than any superhero movie ever.
The relationship between isolationism and engagement is especially important in 2018. The wage gap continues to grow in our society, mirroring the upbringing of our two heroes. While Wakanda was hesitant to assist the rest of the world, T’Challa eventually chose to share their technology to the benefit of humanity. We must utilize this powerful lesson. Helping one another is a simple action we are all capable of. We are becoming a selfish society that actively avoids opportunities to support one another. It takes little effort to make someone else’s day; let’s learn from Black Panther and help make our world a better place for everyone.