Black Panther Shatters the Superhero Mold

We went to see Black Panther yesterday, picking an early weekday show to avoid the crowds. The theater still had more people in it than we sometimes see on a Saturday night.

Prepared for Disappointment

Black Panther movie, Wakanda, superheroI prepared myself to be disappointed, simply because it’s difficult for any movie to live up to the kind of hype that has surrounded Black Panther’s opening weekend. Yeah, I thought, it would be good, but . . .

Well, Black Panther was great. Why? For a lot of reasons and most of them have to do with breaking the mold that Hollywood has created for superhero movies, not to mention black characters in any movie. By now, the superhero mold has turned into a straightjacket that turns these films into mass-produced knockoffs of one another. Different superhero, different powers, different costume but otherwise same old, same old. That’s why I said way back in 2013 that I was Officially Burned Out on Superheroes.

Breaking the Mold

Black Panther simply shatters that mold in six ways:

Women Rock: Not just the ones with super powers or mutant abilities—all the women. The Dora Milajie, or king’s personal guard, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira) are all highly skilled women fighters. They know hand-to-hand combat and their weapons are high-tech spears. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a War Dog, or spy for the Wakandan nation. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is Wakanda’s version of Q, a princess without a pink gown and the tech genius who provides eye-popping and innovative technological devices. Ramonda, the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) is wise, experienced and loving. The women of Black Panther give us a powerhouse combination of brains, skill, and power.

Black Panther, Dora Milajie, Okoye, Danai Gurira

The Dora Milajie and Okoye

Black People Rock: I found it a breath of fresh air to see a movie in which black people are not defined by slavery, drug abuse, gang warfare, pimping, prostitution, theft and / or violence.

Most of all, they are not defined by, or trying to emulate, white people. The people of Wakanda show us, perhaps, what Africa might have looked like had the “colonizers” not enslaved its people, raped its resources, and supported greedy warlords. Here we see black people who are educated, intelligent, proud of their heritage and productive beyond anything the rest of the world has imagined.

A Whole New World

Blades, Not Guns: When they fight, the people of Wakanda fight with spears, knives and machetes. White do people fight with guns but, for most of the movie we are spared the inevitable hail of bullets that mark so many superhero movies.

A Whole New Culture: We see a Wakandan capital city that is elegant and cultured. Its people wear beautiful clothes and hats that update traditional tribal costumes. We’re have become accustomed to seeing sets like this only from villains (James Bond), gods (Thor) or aliens (Superman). But real human beings created this city and—another break with the mold—it doesn’t get demolished by the end of the movie.

Black Panther, Wakanda

Flying into Wakanda

Witty Dialogue: While Joss Whedon and Iron Man improved this flaw with superheroes, I always enjoy hearing good-humored banter, puns and plays on words. We get lots of that in Black Panther, especially from Princess Shuri, the irreverent genius.

Unpredictability: Because this story is so different, the characters do not follow the well-established Western-European trope for black people, and the movie expands beyond the superhero mold, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. That adds a wonderful extra interest to watching it.

Thinking About Black Panther’s Premise

I did find myself thinking about more than the story—and that was a good thing.

Where those farmers come from? Wakanda presents a mask to the world of a poor nation inhabited by subsistence farmers living in huts. We do see those people in fly-over country and I wondered who they were. Did Wakanda sentence criminals to live in huts and herd goats instead of going to jail? Did volunteers take turns? Was it a kind of vacation for the city dwellers?

Why the ghetto English? Michael B. Jordan plays Erik Killmonger, who is supposedly a graduate of MIT, a former Navy SEAL and CIA agent but who still talks in fractured English. Really? Couldn’t he have learned to speak better than that?

Black Panther, Ritual combat, T'Challa, Erik Killmonger

Ritual combat for the throne

Why not start with Africa? Several characters want to use Wakanda’s power and technology to improve the world. I wondered why they didn’t start with making Africa a powerhouse—one country at a time.

I pictured Wakandan envoys having a little chat with one warlord and authoritarian ruler after another. They would explain why it would be a good idea for him to stop stealing money from his country and start making life better for his people. They would demonstrate the consequences of not doing so. And, one nation at a time, they would undo the damage inflicted by the “colonizers” until Africa became a continent to reckon with.

That’s the mark of a good movie for me—one that send me out thinking about what would happen next, what might have been, or what could be with just a few changes. Black Panther is the only superhero movie to really accomplish that.

Oh, I also left wondering how long it will be before we see the crossed-arm salute of Wakanda on the world’s streets.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Black Panther has a 96% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. it racked up over $200 million in box office receipts over the three-day holiday weekend—the second-largest four-day gross in movie history. Let’s see the Academy ignore that next year. This could mark the end of #OscarsSoWhite.

In Hollywood, nothing succeeds like box-office success. That leads me to one more thought: We may see even more mold-breaking in the future.