“Black Panther” brings black superheroes into the spotlight

Alec Collins, Arts Columnist

The latest addition to Disney’s sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther,” is the most important superhero blockbuster since “Iron Man” reinvented the genre in 2008.

“Black Panther,” released Feb. 15, has a majority-black creative team and cast, as well as an unabashedly Afro-American perspective. Questions of race and identity are built into its premise.

T’Challa, played by “Marshall” star Chadwick Boseman, is the prince of Wakanda, a fictional African nation more technologically advanced than the rest of the world.

Though advanced, Wakanda uses technology to present itself as a third-world country.

After the death of his father during the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa must return home to claim the throne and lead his people.

The film’s creative team, led by director Ryan Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole, communicates the best vision of Afro-Futurism that exists on the big screen.

Wakanda is full of African-inspired architecture, costumes and rituals rendered in Marvel’s signature CGI style. Adding to the visual splendor are flying shots of rolling South African highland plains, forests and mountains.

The film’s strength comes from the antagonist, Erik Killmonger, played by Coogler-veteran Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger is the lynchpin of the film’s Shakespearean succession conflict, a regular feature of Marvel films.

With Killmonger, the film has captured that most elusive specimen: a sympathetic villain. He is a black sheep who has first-hand experience with the wider world’s racism, which only exists to T’Challa as intellectual abstraction.

Killmonger’s appeal keeps us on the edge of our seats for the film’s finale, unsure of exactly where we stand in the debate between T’Challa and Killmonger.

Coogler and Cole have created a superhero story with a conversation-starting—rather than merely functional—villain who presents a strong antithesis to the protagonist.

Killmonger is a Garvey or Malcolm X to T’Challa’s Du Bois or King.

In addition to welcoming the nuanced view of race, this film is also a feminist one: three of the the four main supporting characters are strong black women who are warriors full of honor and ingenuity.

The acting and writing shine—every line of dialogue in “Black Panther” is convincing. The soundtrack and score, from hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, are listenable and atmospheric, saturating our senses with the world of Wakanda.

A few issues prevent this from being a truly perfect film: the plot takes too long to get rolling, leaving the viewers scratching their heads for the first half hour.

Coogler also unfortunately continues the industry trend of jumpy, confusing action scenes, especially toward the beginning..

The film would have burned even brighter had it been released before the other entrants in this genre had all but sucked all the oxygen out of it, as it often feels overly familiar.

“Black Panther” is overall an enjoyable story and model for diverse representation in blockbusters of the future.

Want more “Black Panther” coverage? In Prime Time Cats, podcasters Corey and Faith chat about the popular film and what UVM students think of it. Listen here.