Watching the trailer for the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp, I found myself hard pressed to get excited. I dug Ant-Man and I have no doubt I’ll enjoy the film, but I’m coming off of Thor: Ragnarok here. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten to a point at which worldbuilding, neigh, universe-building, is in full swing, and after the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ragnarok, in which nearly everything on screen is conjured from someone’s imagination, it can be hard for me to settle back down to Earth for the likes of Spider-Man’s Brooklyn or Ant-Man and the Wasp’s San Francisco. By and large, I love Marvel movies the most when they take me some place extraordinary.
Black Panther is quite likely the best worldbuilding Marvel has done yet, its setting, Wakanda, one of its most extraordinary. A large part of that is how Black Panther builds its world. There’s the amazing art direction and the imagination writ celluloid, but more than that Black Panther builds its world by letting us in on its characters’ opinions of that world and its culture and tradition.
More than any preceding film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther steeps itself in a hearty discourse on tradition, fitting subject matter for a film in which the protagonist is a king in the modern world.
After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa finds himself crowned king of the isolationist, techno-oasis Wakanda, the most advanced and invisible country on the planet. But as his father says, “it is hard for a good man to be king.” T’Challa finds himself tasked with becoming the arbiter, the living personification, of centuries of tradition that mean many different things to many different people.
To T’Challa’s sister Shuri, played by standout amongst standouts Letitia Wright, tradition is something flimsy and old, something to be dutifully, if begrudgingly, honored but lightheartedly scoffed at. Early in the film she expresses the sentiment that just because something is not broken doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.
Arguably her polar opposite, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of T’Challa’s body guards, the Dora Milaje, has dedicated her life to upholding Wakandan institutions. She is a protector of tradition even when it is anything but pragmatic. Okoye is no bureaucratic extremist, but she understands that traditions exist for a reason, that they can stem the tides of chaos, that they can minimize violence, that they can be a glue that makes a country more than a place and a people. She has given herself over to something bigger than herself.
Somewhere in the middle is Lupita Nyongo’s Nakia, a Wakandan spy who has traveled the world her country has so expertly isolated itself from. She’s as quick to honor the cultural tradition of her country as she it to point out the flaws in its political traditions. She’s not one to hold up the establishment or abandon it, rather she urges progress, she urges establishments, culture and tradition be dragged into the future.
But what Black Panther’s examination of tradition comes down to is what does tradition mean for the powerful and what does it mean for the powerless?
Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the greatest MCU villain yet. To him tradition is a weapon, one that, if not actively used against him, has at least utterly refused to come to his defense. His is a quest to harness tradition, to usurp it and redirect it, to wield it like the weapon it could be.
Killmonger keeps it real. Real real. He challenges T’Challa’s worldview and Wakanda’s traditions so completely and effectively that even his villainous means ultimately do little to help the Black Panther or the audience intellectualize his crusade away.
While T’Challa finds himself surrounded by hot takes on tradition, he himself is the one tasked with carrying that tradition forward, be it carefully like an old antique vase or brashly like a weapon affecting everything around it. As king he finds himself in a position unlike any of his Avenging counterparts. His is not a duty simply to save, his is a duty to govern, to keep the trains running, to prune and nurse tradition like a careful gardener so that it best serves people not only in crisis, but day to day. He is a living bridge between a past and future that are continually being analyzed and redefined by all around him, all the while striving to be a good man.
Wakanda seeps into the marrow of these characters in a way that no other locale in the Marvel Universe has because these characters don’t just live in Wakanda, they analyze Wakanda. The script, co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, boasts characters that dedicate themselves to it, that roll their eyes at it, that condemn it. Black Panther’s worldbuilding through character brings Wakanda to life in a ways that even the best art direction can’t achieve, ways that make it even harder for me to get excited for a return to San Francisco or Queens.