Secret identities have been a staple of superherodom since Superman first slapped on a pair of glasses and called himself Clark.
But a whole country in disguise?
Welcome to Wakanda, a third-world nation that boasts—well, basically nothing. Sure, it’s picturesque in its own way. And maybe it had a bit of vibranium—that super-rare, super-durable metal that makes up Captain America’s shield—back in the day. But Wakanda didn’t have enough of the stuff to make a dent in the country’s crippling poverty. Now it doesn’t even have that, thanks to the thieving Ulysses Klaue (pronounced claw). With most of its vibranium gone, Wakanda is so destitute that the only folks who visit are those who got lost on their way to Chad.
Nope, there’s absolutely nothing to see in Wakanda. Nothing at all … unless, that is, you sneak past the high-tech, invisible cloaking barrier.
Turns out, Wakanda has a bit more vibranium than its leaders let on. Like, a whole mountain of it. And you can do more than just make shields out of the stuff. It’s awfully useful for transportation and medicine, for national defense and even fashion. Vibranium is the most useful substance since water, and this African nation is soaked in the stuff. As a result, Wakanda is secretly the most advanced society on the planet, and its capital city makes Abu Dhabi look a little dowdy, Tokyo look a little antiquated, and the Big Apple look like it’s a little past its sell-by date.
For centuries, Wakanda has kept its great wealth to itself, doing its level-headed best to protect its vibranium, its culture and its people. And the country’s new, young, all-powerful king, T’Challa, shows no immediate signs of reversing course. Some disagree with that tack, admittedly: T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia, thinks it’s high time Wakanda took a more active role in helping the hurting world around it. But let’s face it, most African nations have learned, quite painfully, what it means to have something of value to the whole world: invasion, exploitation, colonialization. And even though Wakanda is a bit too powerful to worry much about that sort of thing happening, why risk it?
Not everyone is so clueless about Wakanda’s natural attributes, though. Klaue knows there’s more vibranium to steal: Lots more. And he’s recently found a new partner in crime—a guy with the moniker Erik Killmonger.
But Killmonger has an agenda that even Klaue might blanch at, one that could mean nothing less than upending and destroying the world as we all know it. He aims to turn Wakanda’s vibranium into a mass weapon of vengeance, and he’ll not let anything stand in his way.
Not even Wakanda’s king, T’Challa, and its traditional protector: Black Panther.
Let’s do something unusual here and begin our positive focus with Killmonger. That’s right, the bad guy.
Make no mistake, Killmonger is bad—bad to practically every lethal bone in his body. But as it is with most great movie villains, we see elements of a righteous impulse twisted in him. The guy has seen Africa exploited, misused and ignored. He knows the injustices that the continent’s inhabitants have had to endure for so many centuries, and he’s angry about it. And when you look at history, it’s not hard to find reasons for that anger.
T’Challa understands those realities, too. But if Killmonger’s determined to mete out catastrophic retaliation for past abuses, T’Challa looks toward the future—one filled with hope and reconciliation. He aims to walk a higher road, one that might serve as an example for other people and countries to follow. As king and protector of Wakanda, T’Challa’s willing to sacrifice everything for his homeland. Yet he also recognizes the threat that Killmonger represents to the rest of the world, too, and he’s determined to stop him.
But here’s an interesting twist: Despite the obvious threat, T’Challa insists on opposing Killmonger fairly. He, along with most of the Wakandans we meet, doesn’t try to achieve honorable ends through dishonorable means. Sometimes, admittedly, there’s a difference of opinion about what path to travel: When someone usurps T’Challa’s throne, Nakia decides to oppose the usurper. Meanwhile, Okoye, Wakanda’s supremely skilled warrior/general, declares her allegiance to the throne of Wakanda, not the man who sits on it. Both pursue what they believe is the most righteous course under the circumstances. Nakia risks all to oppose a would-be tyrant; Okoye pushes against her own instincts to persevere with her duty. Both courses are pretty inspiring.
We see plenty of others—even would-be antagonists—follow their own righteous paths. M’Baku, a chieftain from a rival clan and longtime T’Challa adversary, helps the king out in an hour of need. Everett Ross, a somewhat slippery CIA agent, is willing to sacrifice for someone else and jumps to Wakanda’s defense when the need is dire. Wakandans help and heal people, even when it seems like it’d be in their self-interest not to do so.
T’Challa, Nakia and others rescue kidnapped women from heavily armed kidnappers. We learn that T’Challa’s father made a difficult, far-reaching decision many years ago that his son now believes in hindsight was morally wrong.
[Spoiler Warning] And finally, we must note that Nakia’s desire for Wakanda to shed its reclusiveness and help the rest of the world as much as its resources will allow is a value that T’Challa eventually embraces, too. In times of great stress and trial, he says, “the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” And while we can obviously hear that dialogue as political commentary on current real-world issues, it’s also a message the Christian Church has long embraced.
While some of Black Panther‘s themes echo Christian ideas and values, the movie’s explicit spiritual framework is rooted in another mythos.
The Black Panther has been Wakanda’s protector for centuries. The country’s king is always given the power of the panther as part of his title—a power that Wakandans say comes from the panther god, Bast, by way of a glowing flower. As part of the new king’s coronation ceremonies, Wakandan monarchs undergo a mystical “death,” as it were: They fall into a trance and are literally buried under dirt (or other such substance), where they travel to the realm of their ancestors—meeting the spirits of their fathers and others who have gone before.
We hear people pray to these ancestors and praise Bast. (“Glory to Bast, I’m in good health,” one says.) T’Challa’s widowed mother expresses faith that his father is still with them all. During ceremonial combat, M’Baku temporarily knocks T’Challa to the ground and taunts him, saying, “Where is your god now?”
T’Challa and Nakia share some kisses, a couple of them a bit sensual. Nakia and Okoye wear flattering evening wear to a casino; Nakia’s dress exposes her shoulders, Okoye’s a bit of cleavage. Some Wakandan traditional garb displays female midriffs. T’Challa, M’Baku and others sometimes go about without shirts.
We witness plenty of typical superhero action here. Characters get punched and kicked and shot at. A few aircraft are shot out of the sky (though given Wakandan technology, I’m not sure whether those aircraft necessarily contained human pilots). Cars crash. Some are blown to bits. There’s some seriously frenetic action involving high-tech Wakandan spears, secret arm cannons and—well, not to give too much away¬—some well-armored animals.
A few violent moments are worth noting in greater detail. Someone has his throat cut during a dramatic battle sequence. Others are stabbed in the shoulder or gut during ceremonial battles, and we subsequently glimpse their bloody wounds. A guy is shot in the spine, almost ending in his death. A woman is shot in the head and killed. Someone’s thrown off a cliff, apparently to his doom. Folks die via spear and claw and bullet (with one being shot treacherously in the back).
In flashback, we see men seemingly intent on sparking violence in Oakland, California, and they hide a pair of automatic weapons when someone comes to the door. We hear about some colonial-era atrocities. And there’s also mention of slaves who, instead of submitting to slavery, killed themselves. A bunch of flowers are set on fire. A large animal gets thrown to the ground. We hear an arm apparently break.
Killmonger has a long history as a soldier, assassin and spy, and he says he’s ceremonially scarred himself for each life he’s taken. His body is covered with such scars.
We hear at least five s-words, a few uses of “a–” and at least one use of “b–ch,” (some of which are in songs playing in the background). Additionally, we hear several instances of “h—” and two misuses of God’s name. There’s one crude hand gesture.
While Wakandan legend says the Black Panther’s power comes from Bast, it technically flows from a flower that’s ground into powder and then mixed into a liquid. When the Wakandan king (who, as mentioned, also serves as Black Panther) needs to undergo ritual combat with another claimant to the throne, he drinks another drug-laced beverage, which temporarily removes his special powers.
Attendees at a casino consume various alcoholic beverages.
We hear an occasional lie … including the whopper that Wakanda is a poor, third-world country. (Yeah, just like Kanye West’s most notable attribute is his modesty.) A scene takes place in an illegal gambling parlor.
Black Panther isn’t just a movie: It’s a moment.
Most Marvel movies make a mint upon release, and this one will be no different. But the buzz surrounding Black Panther has hit a whole different level. It’s the first blockbuster superhero movie not only to star a black hero, but a predominantly black cast as well (including Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker and newly minted Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown). Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, who’s not even in the movie, thought the movie was important enough to rent out an entire movie theater and fill it with “an underserved community … to ensure that all our brown children can see themselves as a superhero.” Black Panther, in its own superhero-y way, deals with bigger cultural touchstones, most notably racial upheaval.
But while this movie certainly has a special appeal for one segment of superhero lovers, it’s also a movie made for all of us. Black Panther preaches—and I think that’s a fair characterization—that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place. To help folks when and where we can. To use the gifts that God has given us to serve others and to hold ourselves to high, honorable standards. It tells us that while we can fight back against evil, we cannot respond to hate in kind. The only thing that can overcome man’s worst impulses is to aspire to be better. More honorable. More just.
Black Panther, like most superhero movies, is an aspirational story—one that encourages all of us to up our game, superpowers or no. It’s a hard road such stories ask of us, no question, and the movie even acknowledges as such. When T’Challa faces his dearly departed father, he’s told flat out, “You are a good man with a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be king.” But T’Challa’s determined to try to be both, whatever the cost.
Black Panther isn’t necessarily better than some of the other standout superhero movies that have come before it. And, as noted above, it has its share of problems—whether it’s the film’s occasionally intense violence, it’s occasional profanity or its often hinky spirituality. Still, Black Panther has a good heart, and it gives us a real hero—strong and honorable and, when possible, even filled with grace.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.