At this point, there are myriad articles praising Black Panther and its achievement. It manages to be one of the most entertaining Marvel films in a while, ditching the template so many Marvel films have followed that the franchise has started to get criticism for. This is a Shakespearean tragedy couched in an action franchise. A young king fighting to protect the throne coming to terms with his father’s legacy and history. It’s powerfully told, entertaining from the first frame to the very moment the lights finally come back up, and it manages to be so much more than just an entertaining story.
I think the most impressive achievement of Black Panther I allude to above is that you can enjoy this film on purely visceral terms. It manages to delight and entertain with its characters, wit, story, and action throughout. It avoids relying on people having deep experience and recall of nuance preceding this story across a half dozen other Marvel films. It provides a sympathetic and charming cast of characters- heroes and villains alike, while also muddying the waters between the two- He may be the Black Panther, but there’s plenty of moral grey in the story that’s told and its cast.
All of this and more you’ll read at length in any number of reviews, or about the art style, the direction, the music, and more. I want to focus on what took me beyond mere enjoyment to literal tears for the final five minutes.
When I first saw The Avengers some eight years ago, I got choked up (but didn’t cry) because I felt a young Balloo inside of me, a small child who was inspired by stories of super heroes, made fun of for being a chubby little nerd. That young Balloo was seeing heroes he’d grown up admiring on the big screen in a spectacle he had always hoped for, but had never thought truly possible. Multiple good comic book movies that were cultural tentpoles, and now a culmination of all those in a group adventure?
Black Panther had me at that same precipice throughout and up to its final act. Here was another of the heroes I admired but never thought I’d see get his own film, and the film hadn’t needed to be whitewashed with a story set in America, or rely on the other white heroes of the pantheon to make it “for the masses.”
I’m not of African descent, but I am a person of color. I grew up not having any brown skinned heroes to look up to. I grew up being teased with the Apu voice. I grew up being taunted or outright slandered as a “terrorist” throughout high school (and even occasionally to this day).
It means so much seeing people of color be allowed to take center stage, to have a story of their own that is genuine and cultural, but not tokenized. Growing up, choosing which hero I wanted to be for Halloween was always a little nerve wracking because so many of the masks I wanted to wear were of white heroes. I didn’t have any heroes I could pick from that wouldn’t have people say, “You’re the Indian [Insert Hero Name].”
I mentioned that it’s possible to take Black Panther in at purely visceral terms, and I think people will have a fantastic time doing so. You’re missing out on a poetry in the story, told among its characters if you don’t look just a little bit beyond the veil to see: it’s a story of those pushed from center stage to stand in the wings- it’s a story of the subjugated and oppressed, and the strength they have. It’s a story of how that strength sometimes works against itself, sometimes works against its own brothers and sisters, Black Panther is a story about the value of those stories of those struggles and those battles.
When it all became so clear in the climax, when the dust settled on screen and the story began to wrap, I lost it. I never thought I’d see something like this on screen, far less of such a mainstream franchise and corporation putting this out there with this force and demand for attention. I began to openly sob that this story had been told.
I was overwhelmed by how sympathetic it was, but also how clearly conscious it was of the little kids out there who would benefit from seeing someone with their skin color, their culture, their heritage on the screen. Characters that stood, struggled, and triumphed on their own strength. Heroes that were completely conscious and focused on the future and the generation to follow.
I wept with joy to know how many people would see this and enjoy it. I wept to think of all the small children who were looking forward to Halloween and having a costume they could wear without an adjective describing their choice, and how much it’ll mean for all of us when more of our youth know that they- if they’re strong, determined, and good- can step into the spotlight and take center stage.