It is very rare for a film to craft a living breathing culture on screen. When you watch a narrative movie, your mind is still aware in some part that this is all a carefully constructed illusion. So when a story teller is trying to create an entirely new mythology and history, our minds war against the idea of a society we have never seen before and couldn't possibly exist. A handful of filmmakers have pulled it off. Sir Ridley Scott took a Philip K. Dick story about fugitive androids and re-cast what we perceived as "futurist" into a dirty lived in hovel in Blade Runner. Peter Jackson took the Germanic inspired world of Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkien's opus The Lord of the Rings and made the myriad of concepts and spaces within that world viable.
However, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler isn't necessarily trying to create a brand new culture with the fictitious Wakanda. He is taking elements from the great cultures of the African continent that have existed for thousands of years and using them as a lens for a story about familial intrigue and social complexity. All the while, having the drama unfolding through his characters actions and reactions whispering to his audience, "You have power."
Black Panther is Marvel's eighteenth motion picture in their cinematic universe enterprise. This crazy ride has dominated collective popular culture for a decade now. So, naturally, it's hard to bring something new to the table when the table is loaded with so much rich food for film-goers to gorge themselves on. And the beats of the story Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have drafted do seem a bit familiar. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly crowned king of the secretive African nation of Wakanda must stop the illegal sale of his nation's most valuable resource, the mineral vibranium. Alongside his trusted bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), a general in the all female Dora Milaje, and his ex-girlfriend and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), they track down deranged arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Along the way, they run into interference from CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Meanwhile, Klaue's charistmatic and dangerously efficient partner "Killmonger" (Michael B. Jordan) moves the pieces on the board to suit his own personal agenda regarding the Wakandan royal family.
Upon reflection, I see the similarities in so many of the other MCU films. T'Challa coming to grips with the legacy of his father rings of Tony Stark and Thor, while his relationship and interactions with Killmonger feel similar to the Asgardian politics of the first two Thor films - and even Thor and Loki's interactions back in The Avengers. Even the emotional climax we encounter in the final act - which I will not spoil - is in the same vein as Captain America: Civil War.
This leads to the question, if this film is so similar to other MCU movies, then why has it struck a chord with so many people? And why do I think this is not only one of the most powerful Marvel movies but also one of the most important?
Well... and there's no way to say this delicately, so I won't. Superhero stories are a power fantasy, a way to project ourselves onto characters we connect with on an emotional level that have so much more power in their world then we will ever have in ours. We then walk away from these stories resonating with the psychology of the hero characters and invigorated by the power they display on screen.
Black Panther is a power fantasy for a people who have been consistently oppressed by the other more powerful peoples of the world. Actually, it might not be accurate to call it a "fantasy" but rather a possibility.
The nation of Wakanda is more technologically advanced then any other nation on earth, yet they have remained isolated and feigned the status of a third world country. T'Challa is given the crown right after the disastrous events of Civil War and is racked with confusion and uncertainty regarding the future of his people and his own future as both king and Black Panther. Killmonger, meanwhile, has grown up in America and has seen how the rest of the world has treated the people's of his home continent. Saying that they have been abused and bound over countless centuries would be biggest the understatement of the last millennium.
That is where the great dichotomy of film comes in. T'Challa is king of a nation that, arguably, has more power than any other on earth and he chooses to use that power to keep them safe. He directs this power as an insular force. Is it isolationist of he and the other leaders to do this? By strict definition, yes. But it has also protected their people from the ravages of colonialism for centuries and brought prosperity to their people.
Killmonger, on the other hand, has grown up in America. For over three decades, he saw descendants of the African peoples put down, disenfranchised, and stripped of their dignity. He learned of the centuries of imperialism and slavery forced upon them throughout history. And as he reaches maturity, in both his skills as mercenary and the knowledge of his heritage, he resolves to direct his power - or rather the power he will soon attain - outward. He wants Wakanda to influence the world, take down it's oppressive systems. From an outside view, he looks like a tyrant, but a tyrant never calls himself such - only those who are subjugated by them. And Killmonger knows this.
Here we have two men of color in positions of power with two very different views on how that power can be used. While Killmonger's methods are brutal and violent, his complexity and conviction conveys to the audience that he earnestly believes in them - and the hint that he may be justified. T'Challa, meanwhile, sees this path of force and aggression as an ill transformation, in which his people could very well become the oppressors. This isn't conveyed with a great deal of subtlety - in fact it's spelled out for us in the final encounter - but at this point, we've reach the apex of the movie and all of the tension has boiled to the surface, so it feels somewhat natural.
To me, this is the true power of Black Panther. Director Ryan Coogler and Chadwick Boseman have taken a character who, in the comics and other media, often deals with political power struggles in his home country and said, "That power struggle isn't just in Wakanda. It's everywhere." And Black Panther may make you realize that there are many paths that struggle can lead.