Black Panther just had one of the biggest opening weekends of all time. You’ve probably seen it by now. If you haven’t, you really should. It’s amazing. But let’s just dispense with any pretense of a non-spoiler review and talk about the ending. And when I say “ending” I’m not talking about Chadwick Boseman’s fight with Michael B. Jordan. No, I mean the actual final scene.
Marvel’s Black Panther, a movie about a superhero hailing from the fictional African country Wakanda, is somewhat surprisingly bookended by two scenes of black kids playing basketball in Oakland, California:
In the opening sequence set in 1992, the kids shooting hoops are completely unaware that just across the street from them a black superhero is moving in the shadows and holding closed-door meetings with allies and enemies; in the closing sequence set in present day, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa revisits that same basketball court and reveals his country’s dazzling future tech to a stunned group of kids. Almost all of them abandon their game immediately and rush over to inspect the practical spaceship this stranger just parked in their front yard. One of the kids hangs back, though, and approaches T’Challa with an awestruck look on his face. “Who are you?” he asks. T’Challa merely smirks, and the film cuts to the credits before he answers the question.
Of course, we know the answer. The dude’s name is the freakin’ title of the movie. But T’Challa announcing himself to the kid, like some kind of callback to Robert Downey, Jr. “I am Iron Man” proclamation from a decade ago, is beside the point. Instead, the point is the kid finally has a hero who looks like him and a hero he can talk to.
It might not seem like it, but this ending is one of the most poignant moments of superhero mythmaking in recent movie history. Rarely has a superhero movie ever so explicitly, yet so powerfully announced: “We want little kids to look up to this person.”
Wonder Woman carries its own undeniable power, but it never quite has a moment as direct as this one. Justice League tries and fails with its bizarre, clearly added-in-post opening where kid YouTubers ask Superman about his thoughts on heroism. Black Panther shows what happens when the effort to rather bluntly inspire is genuine, perfectly balanced and not some mere afterthought or groan-inducing genre trope.
In my reading, this ending is director Ryan Coogler using Black Panther to talk to himself as well as the audience. Coogler, the 31-year-old wunderkind behind Fruitvale Station and Creed, is from Oakland. In fact, the first Black Panther comic book he ever saw was at Oakland’s Dr. Comics & Mr. Games. It’s not hard to imagine a 6-year-old Coogler playing basketball on that very court in ‘92 and fantasizing about meeting Black Panther.
Now, as a grown man he’s realized that fantasy on film and shared it with the world, giving all the kids who look like him what he was denied as a child due to growing up in a culture that didn’t value black identity.
Of course, this ending is more than just the proud arrival of a new black icon. It’s also the culmination of the moral journey of the story.
In 1992, T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, held the mantle of Black Panther but did nothing with his power and privilege to help anyone outside of Wakanda. During his brief stay in Oakland, he is completely unmoved by talk of racial strife, hinted at in background TV footage of the beginnings of the Rodney King Riots in neighboring Los Angeles. In 2018, T’Challa is a Black Panther ready to inspire and help all those who need him. It just takes him the entire movie and a life and death (and then life again) conflict with a militant, hated-filled cousin (Michael B. Jordan’s scene-stealing Killmonger) to arrive at that position and abandon his country’s centuries of isolationism.
In the film’s script, which Coogler co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, the idea of Wakanda and Black Panther is referred to as a fairy tale more than once. In fact, the opening line of the movie is a young Killmonger asking his father to tell him the story of their homeland. Wakanda, we are told, is a black El Dorado with natural resources (or at least exclusive access to a precious metal from an asteroid), technologies, and knowledge superior to anywhere else in the world, and its king is imbued with super strength and abilities due to a rare plant. Killmonger, who hails from Wakandan royalty but grew up in Oakland, perhaps stands in for Coogler when he later says in a moment of despair, “Can you believe that? Kid from Oakland running around believing in fairy tales.”
But why not a kid from Oakland? Or a teenager from Ghana? Don’t all people deserve to believe in hope and see themselves in stories positing a better future for the world?
Because superheroes are so omnipresent now (Black Panther is just the first of 9 superhero movies coming out this year) and play to worldwide audiences of all ages and races we sometimes forget that at their core these stories are supposed to inspire, not merely entertain and distract. Captain America’s stoic heroism is supposed to be a shining light in an increasingly hazy time. Wonder Woman’s determination in the face of the harsh realities of the world and refusal to concede defeat to cynicism and humanity’s more sinister impulses is supposed to inspire little girls to believe they can overcome any obstacle and hearten grown women to keep up the good fight.
Similarly, Black Panther shows black kids that they can be their own James Bond (as seen in the film’s wonderful sequence in South Korea). They can be the smartest tech nerd in the world (as represented in the film by Letitia Wright’s hilarious Shuri, T’Challa’s younger, remarkably self-assured sister who when she says she knows more than him we instantly believe her). They can be a fierce warrior (like the Grace Jones-looking Dora Milaje). And black adults who’ve never stepped foot in Africa can gain a new appreciation for their heritage.
That is what a traditional superhero movie is supposed to do, dammit. It’s not about hitting all four-quadrants, selling toys, setting up sequels, and fitting neatly into familiar story structures and language-neutral action beats; it’s about finding the truth inside the fantastical and presenting the world with something hopeful.
Black Panther also shows non-black audiences a world where the leading authority on science, technology, medicine, and the military has a black face. In the mid-credits scene, T’Challa delivers a speech to the UN about building bridges, and it’s the exact opposite of Donald Trump and his acolyte’s nativist, America first rhetoric. The effect is jarringly powerful. How often in film has the black man been presented as the most rational mind and clearly leading moral authority in the world?
But Black Panther is just a superhero movie. There are plenty of real-world heroes for black kids to admire and Black Panther can’t claim to the be the first black superhero on film [see also: Blankman, The Meteor Man, Steel, Blade, Hancock, Luke Cage, Black Lightning]. But we live in a world where the mere existence and brief stay in power by the last great black hero (Barack Obama) directly led to the political rise of a real life, yet somehow even more cartoonish Lex Luthor (Trump). And no black superhero film has ever been quite this black (black director, black cast, primarily set in Africa) or quite this big ($200m budget, simultaneous release in thousands of theaters around the world, attached to the most lucrative cinematic universe in film history).
As such, there are so many cultural forces acting on Black Panther right now and propelling it into the superhero movie equivalent of Roots in terms of both impact and importance to the black community. But unlike Alex Haley’s mission to remind a people to never forget where they came from and what they went through Black Panther fantasizes about what could have been and what they could have become.
“What if they didn’t come? And what if they didn’t take us? What would that have been?” are the tantalizing questions Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay posed to the New York Times as way of explaining the unique appeal of Black Panther’s Wakanda and its placement in the Afrofuturism movement. However, Black Panther is not interested in presenting only a rosy, fantasy vision of a black utopia. There is a clear downside to that fantasy in that it suggests centuries of inaction on the part of a black people who could have helped their brothers and sisters against more powerful colonizers.
We see this most directly in Killmonger. In a heartbreaking visit to the ancient realm to communicate with his dead dad, he initially refuses to shed a tear. He coldly, but accurately concludes his dad was just another dead black man in an area full of them. It’s not hard to see why he ascends to a place of wanting to use Wakanda’s resources to engineer a black takeover of the world, the real world ethos of the most extreme elements of the Black Panther Party brought to life.
This sets up Black Panther’s ethical argument which plays like a cross between Spider-Man and X-Men. Here, the familiar with great power must also come great responsibility truism is not unique to an individual but instead an entire country. Moreover, the tenants of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were long ago repackaged into and regurgitated out of the mouths of two white X-Men characters – Professor Xavier and Magneto – who have now starred in 7 different movies. Black Panther gives them back their blackface, with T’Challa the MLK figure and Killmonger the Malcolm X.
You feel for Killmonger, one of the most intriguing MCU villains ever, but in the end, Black Panther preaches a message of love, not hate. You might want Michael B. Jordan’s comic book proportioned body, but you’re supposed to also want Chadwick Boseman’s soul. And if you’re a black kid that fantasy you might have about playing basketball with your hero has a new, uplifting superhero context.
To be fair, as a film Black Panther is not without its flaws. Marvel’s bad CGI rears its ugly head on more than one occasion. A key ally turns on T’Challa for underexplored reasons. The climactic battle rings a little too familiar to prior tech suit vs. tech suit Marvel finales. In the presence of such stellar supporting characters and colorful villains, Black Panther oddly ends up being the least interesting part of his own movie, a common superhero movie affliction that previously felled Batman and Thor as well.
But as a piece of superhero mythmaking, Black Panther has few equals. Wakanda Forever, indeed.