Black Panther was a game changer. Sure, it’s a piece of the greater tapestry that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it barely feels like it. And that’s not a bad thing! It broke free, so to speak, from the standard hero template and became its own thing. Which, as it turns out, was widely successful as it’s the top grossing movie in the MCU that doesn’t have “Avengers” in the title (as of writing). Why was it so successful? Let’s dive in with this entry of MCU March and find out.
After the death of King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa becomes the new king of Wakanda. Important characters near him include his primary bodyguard Okoye (Ms. Danai Gurira), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and sometimes rival M’Baku (Winston Duke). T’Challa’s plan of bringing down the smuggler Ulysses Klaue (last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron) goes awry when Klaue gets help from Erik Stevens, AKA Killmonger (Michael B Jordan). But Erik has plans within plans, so he kills Klaue and brings the body to Wakanda. Turns out Killmonger is actually N’Jadaka, T’Challa’s cousin who was left behind in America when T’Chaka killed his brother/N’Jadaka’s father for helping Klaue. T’Challa seemingly dies during a challenge for the throne, which puts Killmonger in charge of Wakanda. He plans on shipping vibranium weapons out to Wakandan operatives and take over the rest of the world. But T’Challa is not dead, and with the help of his allies–and eventually M’Baku–he defeats Killmonger and takes his country back.
The mid-credits scene shows T’Challa ready to announce that Wakanda is not the third-world nothing that the rest of the world thinks it is. The post-credits shows Bucky apparently doing well in rural Wakanda with his Hydra deprogramming.
As I mentioned in the intro this was a widely successful movie, and part of that success absolutely is its predominantly black cast. Klaue and Ross are played by white actors (Gollum and Bilbo from The Hobbit trilogy, no less), but the rest of the main cast are people of color. Writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole are black as well, giving this film a sort of authentic feel that a white director most likely couldn’t have brought. It’s a movie about African excellence, highlighted by the ending where T’Challa reveals his futuristic ship in a black neighborhood, and one kid looks up at him with awe and amazement. This is why representation matters.
That feeling also ties into Killmonger’s motivation. Several superhero movies have villains with a more down to earth origin. The Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming was a blue-collar worker laid off by the government. Zemo in Captain America: Civil War was a soldier whose family died because of the Avengers. And Killmonger was a child left behind as part of a coverup by the former king of Wakanda. Wakanda was presented to him as a paradise for black people, and he and other black non-Wakandans were forced to live outside of it. Is Wakanda really such a great nation if it does nothing to help people outside its borders, especially other black people? Villains like these raise interesting points about the status quo of the world, lending a bit of sympathy to them. But they’re comic book villains, so nuance has to be thrown out the window at some point in order to maintain the “good versus evil” balance that doesn’t ruffle too many feathers from the people in charge.
COMIC BOOK FUN FACT! It’s interesting looking up the comic version of movie characters. Like, someone with the name Killmonger is going to be a bad dude in both versions, but did you know that the comic Nakia was a villain? Introduced as one of the Dora Milaje in Black Panther #1 (1998), a series that constantly reminded us that she and Okoye were super hot and super not of legal age. She became obsessed with T’Challa, even risking drowning just so she could get mouth-to-mouth from him. After she was kicked out of the Dora Milaje for trying to kill Black Panther’s sometimes-girlfriend, she teamed up with Killmonger and took the name Malice. She got a bit of redemption before her death in the Avengers: Wakanda Forever one-shot (2018), but even that story started with her trying to get the attention of T’Challa by putting civilian lives in danger.
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