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Black Panther Is More Than a Superhero Movie
After an animated introduction to the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, Black Panther opens in Oakland in 1992. This may seem an odd choice, but it is in fact quite apt. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, got his start in the city, having been born there in 1986. His filmmaking career has its roots there, too, as it was the setting for his debut feature, Fruitvale Station.
A bunch of schoolboys (a fictionalized young Coogler perhaps among them) play pickup hoops on a court with a milk-crate basket. But in the tall apartment building above them two black radicals are plotting a robbery. There’s a knock on the door and one of the men looks through the peephole: “Two Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks—with spears!” I won’t recount the rest of the scene, except to note that the commingling of two very different iterations of the term “Black Panther”—the comic-book hero and the revolutionary organization, ironically established just months apart in 1966—is in no way accidental, and it will inform everything that follows.
Yes, Black Panther is another multizillion-dollar installment in the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that is not all that it is. Other superhero movies have dabbled in big ideas—the Dark Knight trilogy most notably, and the X-Men franchise to a lesser degree. But their commitments to the moral and political questions they contemplated were relatively haphazard and/or peripheral. The arguments Black Panther undertakes with itself are central to its architecture, a narrative spine that runs from the first scene to the last.