One of the things that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe such a special franchise is the manner in which it stays true to the source material from which it draws its inspiration. It’s more than simply rendering film versions of long-running characters that are recognizable to old fans and accessible to new audience members. And it’s more than super heroes’ struggle against evil. And it’s more than ordinary people gifted with extraordinary powers and tasked with extraordinary expectations. Part of what makes Marvel Marvel has been its tradition of noticing who in the real world has not been represented within its pantheon of heroes, and making a place for them. Some 50 years ago, Stan Lee responded to a time of social tumult and an audience receiving an uneven welcome by creating a futuristic African land called Wakanda and a warrior-king named T’Challa, in whom marginalized readers could easily see their heroic selves. Now, T’Challa makes his entrance once again in something that, for a whole lot of people, feels like more than just a superhero movie. Because it is.
The story takes place in Wakanda, a hidden kingdom in the heart of Africa made both rich by its deep deposits of vibranium, a wonder-metal from space that can be used to create and power all kinds of futuristic technology. Young T’Challa has ascended to the throne following the tragic death of his father, and in so doing has also assumed the role of the Black Panther—a warrior persona who defends Wakanda and its people with the help of superhuman powers granted by the ingestion of a special, vibranium-infused herb. But all is not well within Wakanda. Fault lines over the nation’s secrecy and futurism run deep, and the country’s own history casts unexpectedly long shadows. When T’Challa, his super genius sister Shuri, his chief bodyguard Okoye and his super spy ex-lover Nakia apprehend Ulysses Klaue—a mercenary and arms merchant behind a vibranium heist in the outside world—they come across an unexpected enemy in the form of Erik Killmonger. Killmonger is a renegade black ops soldier who knows a lot more about Wakanda that he ought to, and soon reveals himself to be not just a potential heir to the Wakandan throne, but a living testament to a legacy of hypocrisy and abandonment that T’Challa must inherit. As Killmonger rampages, T’Challa must confront the fact that being the Black Panther is about more than bring strong. It is about being righteous. Especially when that means admitting to having done wrong.
This is a story that is all about history. The history of one’s home, the history of one’s people, the history of the wider world, and how histories have a way of overlapping and imposing themselves upon each other. It is a story about how we bear the wounds and injustices of old, even if we had nothing directly to do with them. Those old crimes are part of who we are, and how we choose to contend with them is an even bigger part of who we are. As we watch T’Challa don his Black Panther suit and engage in all kinds of supercharged adventures, it is every bit as entertaining—perhaps even more so—to see the world he must care for. Wakanda is a deeply compelling and wondrous setting, but one that feels like it’s had it easy thanks to a unique set of circumstances that have given it the luxury of pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist. What makes Wakanda special isn’t that it’s apart from the world. It’s what it can do for the world. And it takes the greatest of trials for T’Challa to really wake up to this. But when he does, it delivers an especially satisfying narrative.
But first, there must be crisis. And the crisis of Erik Killmonger presents us with what is easily the most sympathetic and compelling villain in MCU history. Killmonger is Wakanda’s abandoned son, a guy left to the tender mercies of a world rough enough for Wakanda itself to decide not to engage at all. That T’Challa’s father betrayed and abandoned Erik is unforgivable, and nobody’s more aware of it than Erik himself. As he fights his way to a position where he can challenge T’Challa for the Wakandan throne, he carries with him the anger and sadness of an entire history of entire peoples. As he makes T’Challa understands what it means to ignore like the world’s ugliness, we can’t help but see his point.
This is superhero movie, and a royal drama, but it’s also as political a movie as we’re ever likely to get within the MCU. Throughout this story, we’re reminded again and again why a place like Wakanda is so special, and why it feels it must keep hidden from a world from a world that runs on pillaging and exploitation. It’s what makes T’Challa and Killmonger two sides of the same coin. By the time it’s all over, we get the sense that both Killmonger and T’Challa have made a lasting impression on each other, and that indeed, the future doesn’t belong to those who hide behind walls, but those who cross bridges.
The high point of the movie is all Killmonger’s, when he and T’Challa face off one last time in the face of a Wakandan sunset. T’Challa gives his enemy a chance to determine his fate, and extends an offer of mercy to him. We want Killmonger to take it, for we know there is redemption within him. But the choice he makes, and the reason he gives for it is a moment of truth that speaks truth to anybody who has ever casually uttered the words, live free or die. Sometimes, people can’t make that choice. Sometimes, people have it taken from them. And sometimes, the ones doing the taking are those who call themselves good guys.