While it has certain original and distinctive elements, The Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler) is a super hero story. Unlike most super heroes, the Black Panther (T’Chalia, played by Chadwick Boseman) is the king of a nation called Wakanda, in Africa. The kingship is passed down in patrilineal fashion, from father to son. The king owes his unusual powers to the element vibranium, which is the basis of Wakanda’s wealth and advanced technology. But the Wakandan king is more a leader/hero than a super hero. His character and force of personality form the basis of his ability to lead. He’s more like Beowulf than Superman. The support of the people of Wakanda, and the cultural values in which they believe, also help make him powerful.
Wakanda is both a representation of African culture and traditions—an idealized utopia—and also of the western nations, especially the United States. A basic issue argued out in the film is that wealthy and technologically advanced nations should share their fortunes with less affluent nations. The Wakandans have resisted allowing outsiders to enter their nation, which is hidden from view by a force field. The analogies to our present situation are clear. The film is not especially friendly towards the US—at the end, when the King of Wakanda addresses the United Nations, he does so at the UN headquarters in Vienna, Austria—it’s been relocated. The political and human messages at the center of this film distinguish it from most other super hero films.
The film also dramatizes a conflict over whether people of color should use the wealth and power of Wakanda to wage a war of revenge on the white world, or whether an approach of constructive leadership is preferable. The Black Panther favors the latter approach, but the film does not dismiss the first one: if powerful nations do not share their wealth and knowledge with impoverished parts of the world, if economic and cultural disparities are permitted to persist, then a war of revenge may happen.
Ironically, an American CIA operative, played by Martin Freeman, befriends the Wakandans and assists in their battle against evil. His role as an ally to the Wakandans is ironic because he works for and represents the very thing the film seems to criticize.
In developing the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, the film makes use of African customs, religion, wildlife, and language. It’s not a super hero film infused with white European/American traditions. Costume design based on African fashions make it distinctive. The African setting is more vividly realized than in many Marvel films. It’s truly envisioned. The city at the center of Wakanda is imaginatively detailed DGI.
Although the Black Panther is a man, he is surrounded by women who hold important positions: the King is protected by a highly trained retinue of women guards. Women are sent on missions and give advice to the King. A woman leads the military forces. Women fight battles on an equal basis with men. In Wakanda women hold equal or nearly equal status with men.