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‘Black Panther’ Is the First Time History Has Mattered in a Marvel Movie

Ryan Coogler’s new film is the first African vision of a superhero. But there’s an American story at its center.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe was born into war. Ten years ago, Iron Man announced itself with a bang—an IED, to be exact. In the film’s opening scene, Tony Stark sits in the back of a Humvee with three soldiers, traveling in a convoy with other members of the American military and the war profiteers of Stark Enterprises. The soundtrack is AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark spends the scene basking in the grunts’ adulation. He snarks about sleeping with Maxim cover models, establishing his devil-may-care bona fides. When he poses for a photo with a soldier, he says, “I don’t want to see this on your Myspace page.” The scene is deeply 2008. Ultimately, Iron Man wants us to understand that Tony Stark is cool. Then the Humvee blows up. Stark is wounded by one of his own missiles—a redefinition of “friendly fire”—and an origin story begins. In 2008, the United States really was at war in Afghanistan, entrenched in an unwinnable struggle with an invisible army. It is a grave, unresolved chapter in our country’s history. In Iron Man, it’s an inciting incident for an expanding universe, a place setting for a Happy Meal.

But then, the story of Marvel Comics has always been rooted in real-life events, reimagining a kind of superheroic response to history. Captain America was created nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, as a reaction to the fascistic Nazi regime in Germany. The X-Men were molded in the form of outcast teenagers, reflecting the anxieties of prejudice and sexual confusion in the early 1960s. Black Panther, of course, was a reflection of the civil rights movement and a rising Afrocentrism in the country. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the 18th film produced by Marvel Studios and one of the very best to date, is even more indebted to a global history. It’s also a real film about the choices nations make, and the consequences those decisions have on their citizens.

In the opening scene of Black Panther—after an animated prologue that features a pocket history of tribal strife, regal succession, the slave trade, and world war—we are transported to Oakland in 1992. On the ground, children are playing basketball. It’s springtime. In an apartment building above, the camera pans to a television, where the L.A. riots are unfolding. A black man is surrounded by police. Paranoia is humming. The soundtrack is Too $hort’s “In the Trunk,” a Bay Area anthem. Inside the apartment, two men are plotting, assault rifles on the table, a scheme on the brain. It’s low-level revolution. We come to learn that these men are Wakandan, and one of them, the African king’s brother, has become disillusioned on his espionage mission for the country. He’s been radicalized by what he’s seen in America. When the king learns of his brother’s actions, he travels to America to confront him. The brother (played in a small, but gripping performance by Sterling K. Brown) lashes out during the confrontation, citing America’s history of assassinating black leaders, spreading disease and drugs to its communities, and leaving its occupants to fend for themselves in a vicious society. These are heavy notions for a Marvel movie, more likely to appear in a Gary Webb book than the pages of a Stan Lee comic. When the king’s brother refuses to return to Wakanda and attacks the partner who has betrayed him, he is killed in an act of fratricide. It’s a stunning moment, metaphorical and physical. His heart is pierced by the king’s claws. Down below on the basketball court, a boy hears the cries of the dying man. A new revolution is born in that moment.

Iron Man, with its swaggering lead and quippy script, set the template for MCU films to come. These movies are light and fun, high stakes but low bar. When things do get serious, it’s with a ham sandwich in hand. “My father helped defeat Nazis,” Stark says early on. “He worked on the Manhattan Project.” Tony Stark, the hero, is an arms dealer. In Black Panther, the arms dealer is the villain. The MCU is changing.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, we’re meant to believe that the true evil at the center of the Third Reich was not Hitler, but his right-hand man Johann Schmidt, a power-mad demon-man with a red skull who goes by the name, well, Red Skull. Seen from the wrong angle, Marvel movies can seem really dumb. Black Panther works a similar trick in the opposite way—it situates ideas of colonialism and interventionism inside an imaginary nation. Rather than reconfigure the heritage of Nigeria or South Africa in order to tell its story of heart-shaped superpower plants, retractable bulletproof suits, and the technologies built upon the alien metal vibranium, the film shows how the world sees Wakanda, as a hidden, developing nation low on resources. Wakanda cloaks itself from the rest of the planet with its technology, emphasizing border control to protect its history and its vibranium. In these heady “Build a wall!” times, there is something almost unnerving about the dialogue between T’Challa, the king, and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his friend and military leader. The warrior wants to show the world Wakanda’s might, and by turn, its way of life. The king wants to stay recessed, preserving a sheltered history. W’Kabi and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), want to show how societies can be better by their example—and if that doesn’t work, maybe by their might. This is the story of American imperialism across the past century, the arrogance and good intentions of an advanced society that tricks itself into thinking it can solve the world’s problems. One minute, Black Panther is petting a superpowered rhino, the next, he is debating the ideas espoused by Edward Said and Vladimir Lenin.

Thrashing alongside these ideas of cultural expansion is a fight to protect the home country, from a war-profiteering thief named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having an enormous amount of fun) and his partner, the American radical Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). In the third Captain America movie, Civil War, and the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, we’re confronted with the cost of war, and what it means to be a patriot, whether in the United States or the fictionalized Eastern European nation of Sokovia. In Black Panther, the incursion of dangerous new forces incites tribal warfare—the Wakandan people turned against one another, small differences rupturing a nation. The shades of a different, very real kind of civil war ripple through these scenes, whether recalling Rwanda, Darfur, or the United States. Black Panther is often a joyful exploration of culture, love, and tradition. It’s also a war movie.

Perhaps more important than the presence of a radical American politics are the waves of black nationalism laced throughout Joe Robert Cole and Coogler’s script. It’s a complex vision, more than just creator Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s evocations of Huey P. Newton on the throne. When Erik Killmonger arrives in Wakanda, the story transforms into something more ambiguous—Killmonger is a vicious murderer, but he’s also felt the cost of war and seen what violence can do to reshape the world. He’s known loss at home in America, and learned about a unique kind of survivalism. T’Challa, by contrast, has been a favored son, hermetically sealed in his wealthy nation and his vibranium suit. Killmonger brands his body with killshot dots; T’Challa wears royal flip-flops. That death in 1992, violence in the state of California, and the lost lives around the world at the hands of American military forces crescendos with a familial showdown. When Captain America and Iron Man finally square off at the climax of Civil War, the cause is a zombie soldier named Bucky—comic book stuff, preposterous and silly, even if the fight is a thrill.

“He’s my friend,” Cap says to Tony Stark, as if that matters. Black Panther is bigger than that. In all superhero movies, the stakes must be higher than the sky—the fate of the world, control of the most powerful MacGuffin, the future of a way of life. But it always comes down to something mystical, something unreal. Black Panther has its share of mysticism and alien tech. But it lives and dies, quite literally, on the terms of real conflict. Wakanda isn’t real, until it is.