Major spoilers for Black Panther.
It’s really not exaggerating to say that Black Panther is Marvel’s richest film to date, nor that it has one of the best endings in the franchise. Moreso than even the clearly-purposed Iron Man or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ryan Coogler’s take on the King of Wakanda isn’t afraid to let its brain do the talking, with the action powered by imense emotion.
As a result, Black Panther‘s ending is more than just a victory for the good guys and brief tease for the future. The film is a smartly woven discussion on what Black Panther represents, both in terms of its record-breaking release and the wider cultural discussion, and its ending provides a shaking conclusion to that. Of course, the overall story is, as with most Marvel films, broadly about coming into one’s own with the help of those around you (amplified by the impeccable Dora Milaje), but there’s a lot more going on than just that.
The film picks up with T’Challa in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, following him in the early days of his reign as King of Wakanda when he comes under attack from Erik Killmonger, his estranged cousin and the violent product of his father’s biggest mistake. Killmonger wants the throne for violence, seemingly killing the T’Challa and putting Wakanda under his control – before the true ruler returns. Their confrontation is hard fought physically and ideologically, but represents so much more.
This Page: How Black Panther Tackles Colonialism Head-On
Black Panther Is All About How We Address Colonialism
Much has been made of how Black Panther is culturally groundbreaking – it’s the first major superhero film led by a person of color in well over a decade, and none before have been so infused with such an understanding African culture – but this revolutionary moment that’s made the film so anticipated isn’t reserved to the context of release. Very early on it’s established that Black Panther is tackling colonialism, the effect it had on Africa, and how modern culture can address (if not correct) and move beyond that dark past.
Traditionally, the western world struggles in even acknowledging colonialism due to its moral bankruptcy and still-present grounding to the modern day, but Black Panther doesn’t mess around; it confronts it – specifically the British pillaging and overall desecration of Africa – head-on in Killmonger’s introduction, with Erik denouncing and reclaiming stolen artifacts from the British Museum. Not just for shock value or token lip service, though, this is essential scene-setting – it clears the deck, getting audiences of all backgrounds on the same, critical page and ready for a deeper-probing exploration.
Colonialism, or rather its absence, is ingrained into Wakanda. The vision of the country explicitly present in Black Panther is the idea of uncolonized Africa, of what could have been had the British (among others) not tried to claim the land for themselves, as well as the ignored powers of Africa. This is a fundamental aspect of Afro-futurism, a design ethos that dominates the film, but in Black Panther is also used as a form of thought experiment; if Africa existed uncolonized, how would it fit into the modern world? Would it hide away, attack or integrate?
This debate is personified by the characters in the film: the deceased rulers of Wakanda have, since before the first Black Panther united the tribes, holed themselves away from the rest of the world out of a mixture of self-preservation and fear of what would happen with revealing the truth; diametrically opposed is Killmonger, who – due to having grown up in the west – wants to take the war to them; he sees the inherent strength of Wakanda and wants to bring down the colonists. In a cutting piece of commentary, both sides exemplify colonist mindsets, suggesting an inherent corruption in society; the rulers want to keep what’s theirs from who they deem lesser and Killmonger steals Wakanda’s wealth for his own means.
T’Challa finds himself somewhere in the middle, unable to truly accept what his ancestors believe but never pausing in seeing the flaws in Killmonger’s vicious attack. As Erik ascends the throne after seemingly killing the Black Panther and sends Wakandan ships to lead war against the western world, this is the thematic conflict at play, one that boils over in the finale.
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