I’ve lost a lot of faith in the MCU over the last 10 years. Black Panther made me a believer again.
It’s been a long road to get to Black Panther: 10 years, 18 movies, eight different white male protagonists — all starting with Tony Stark’s Iron Man in 2008.
And while my current feelings about Tony Stark run pretty antagonistic, Iron Man remains one of my all-time favorite comic book superhero movies.
I remember watching it for the first time at the end of my sophomore year of college, completely awed and excited about Tony Stark. That movie — like its titular character — seemed like merely an empty vessel for shallow exploits, but showed proof that superhero movies could have a heart.
A lot has happened in the 10 years since Iron Man debuted in theaters and kicked off the beginnings of the wildly successful MCU. There have been a lot of good films, a few average ones, one or two that are easily described as forgettable.
Over time, my own interest and excitement for the MCU has waned. Part of this is due to the start of the DCEU, which, as a lifelong DC fan, was always going to win my heart.
But part of it, too, is that the winning MCU formula became formulaic to me, the movies becoming increasingly staid and safe when — given its massive success and fan devotion — the MCU could’ve afforded to take a risk or two. That it took 18 films for the MCU to debut a non-white superhero and will take 20 films for it to debut a female one speaks to this aversion of even the most nominal of risks.
I also grew tired of the fact that the movies — while all varying degrees of enjoyable and fun and funny — never quite delivered on the promise of that very first Iron Man film. That first movie managed to balance humor, character, and story in a way that also had something meaningful to say about what it means to be a hero.
And if that message wasn’t particularly profound or thoughtful, at least it was there. Plus, in 2008 my thinking was: it’s only the first movie — there’s plenty of time for the MCU to craft an exciting and enjoyable movie that’s also really thoughtful and has something worth saying.
Turns out it would be another 10 years and 17 movies before we’d get that movie: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.
(This article is spoiler-free.)
A cast that breaks the MCU mold
There’s a lot that we could say about the casting choices in Black Panther.
We could discuss all the ways that representation matters. That after 17 movies and 10 years of being relegated to the sidekick role, of looking on as the white male hero once again gets to deliver the winning blow, men and women of color around the world finally get to see someone who looks like them be the hero on the big screen.
We could talk about the fact that Ryan Coogler and company have assembled some of the finest actors in our generation. How there isn’t a weak link in the entire cast and how each character — from the major to the minor — contributes to the narrative and to the themes of the movie.
We could spend endless amounts of time talking about the revolutionary and transformative power of having a cast that — other than two ‘Tolkien white guys’ — was comprised of Africans, African-Americans, and those of African descent from all over the world.
We could write odes to the truly fantastic female characters in Black Panther — for the fact that this movie leapt over the very low bar established in previous superhero outings and had more than one; for the very welcome fact that each female character was fully fleshed out, each with her own motivations and story arc and agency.
Yes, there are a lot of great and lengthy things we could say about this cast. But for the sake of my word count, I’ll limit it to this:
It’s about damn time.
A villain who will be remembered
It’s long been accepted that the MCU has a villain problem. Other than Loki, whose complex villainy mostly shines in comparison to the dullness of the rest of the MCU’s rogues gallery, it’s difficult to recall any one villain who’s had any real in-universe or out-of-universe impact.
Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger blows past every other villain in the MCU by about a factor of a thousand.
So many MCU villains fall flat because there’s never that real moment where we believe that the hero won’t win, never a moment where we believe that they shouldn’t.
In Black Panther, there are plenty of moments in which we’re not sure whether T’Challa will succeed. More than that, there are plenty of moments where we’re not sure who exactly we want to succeed.
And that’s what sets Killmonger apart from any other villain — the tension that he provides to the story. Not just dramatic tension of whether or not he’ll keep the hero from accomplishing his goal, but the real life, real world tension that makes us ask ourselves: Is he so wrong?
It’s a question we’ve never really been able to ask ourselves with any other villain as they attempt to, in various ways for various self-serving reasons, take over the world (or a world or the universe).
But Killmonger’s quest is not world domination for its own sake or to feed his own ego; it’s not really world domination at all. For him, it’s a balancing of the scales, a meting out of long withheld justice.
And while his bitterness and rage distort his message and methods, there’s something about his quest that lingers with us, that makes us question whose side we really want to be on. And in doing so, gives us a villain that, for the first time in MCU history, stays with us long after the credits and two after credits scenes have faded.
A story that’s worth telling
Standard MCU fare has gone heavy on quips and action sequences, light on thoughtful reflections about the nature of power and how we should wield it. If there is meaning, it’s garbled (Captain America: Civil War) or missing altogether (I’m still not sure of the point of Avengers: Age of Ultron).
Even arguably the best (up until now) and most meaningful film — Captain America: The Winter Soldier — stumbles in its final moments, backing away from its thoughtful reflection on power and responsibility with Black Widow’s final speech to the US government.
As silly or strange as it might seem given that we’re talking about a genre of film where people fight evil in tights, I want my superhero movies to be more than just oversized heroes and witty one-liners and really cool action sequences.
I want my superhero movies, like my favorite superhero comic books, to use these larger than life heroes to craft modern mythologies and to deal with real issues of power and responsibility, to rethink long-held assumptions about morality and goodness.
And yes, I want them to do it while also cracking a few well-timed jokes and with some really kick-ass fight scenes. I do think you can have both. I’ve spent years waiting for the MCU to use its considerable wealth and talent and fan devotion to do just that.
With Black Panther, they finally have.
This film deals with issues of power and responsibility in ways that actually matter, that actually reflect and are rooted in real world questions and struggles. It’s a two and a half hour exploration of the responsibilities we have to one another — as a king, as a country and as an individual — and how colonialism impacts those responsibilities.
It’s a film that begins with asking whether or not a good man can be king, then goes further and makes us ask how we define goodness in the first place.
It’s a film in which Killmonger is not just a vehicle for the hero to save the day, but is a lost child in search of a home, an embittered soldier looking to overturn imperialist world orders.
And it’s a film that doesn’t force us to blithely accept the goodness of its hero by virtue of their role as hero, but instead shows us what it means to be a hero: someone who chooses goodness everyday rather than taking it for granted, someone who learns from and takes responsibility for the consequences of their bad choices, someone who grows and changes as a result of their struggles and mistakes.
Black Panther is the MCU’s first truly great film. One that reflects greatness in its casting choices, in its villain and in its storytelling.
If this is what the MCU has in store for us in the future, then count me in again as one of the faithful.