In Defence of Black Panther: Why Social Significance Can Sometimes Outweigh Cinematic Value

© Marvel Studios

It’s a fickle thing, this cinema business. It finds itself trying to bring joy to millions of people, during a volcanic period of social injustice and cultural re-evaluation. How can the cinema situate itself within civilisation’s general mentality? Does it promote representation, in order to fight for the cause of ‘freedom for all’? Should it focus primarily on finessing the art form itself, polishing off a craft that has been ever-evolving over its centurial life span? Or should it simply seek to entertain, providing that cushion to bury oneself in, as the chaos unfolds outside the auditorium doors?

Well, this kind of debate is ongoing and a resolution is looking like an increasingly dubious prospect. However, rather than attempting to calm the entire storm, it is perhaps best to argue on behalf of isolated cases in order to alleviate the pressure, allowing for a more level-headed discussion in the times ahead.

With this in mind, I’d like to consider Marvel’s most recent entry into its Cinematic Universe, Black Panther. Much to my dismay, many have claimed that the film isn’t the cultural milestone that its stars, its producers and critics, such as myself, have acclaimed it as. Its detractors believe that it should be assessed based on its cinematic credentials, its narrative quality and its visual ambition, three criteria that they believe Black Panther fails to meet in an original and innovative way.

© Marvel Studios
As with all of Marvel’s properties, Black Panther admittedly relies upon the third-act showdown. © Marvel Studios.

Now, perhaps surprisingly, I’d be inclined to agree with this latter statement. Marvel has an established formula at this point that works well for them financially, as it hasn’t brought them a single box office flop over their eighteen film run. However, by refusing to divert from that formula they know and are comfortable with – a suitably standard three-act structure, culminating in a larger-than-life showdown/spectacle – there isn’t much leeway for cinematic creativity.

Nevertheless, I’d like to argue that, in the case of Black Panther, these criticisms are somewhat irrelevant in terms of the wider picture. But, in order to effectively relay my full thoughts, I feel that I must contrast mine with a statement from social thinker and philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, whose claims in his essay Culture Industry Reconsidered align with those already mentioned in relation to Black Panther’s critics:

‘Even if it touches the lives of innumerable people, the function of something is no guarantee of its particular quality. The blending of aesthetics with its residual communicative aspects leads art, as a social phenomenon, not to its rightful position in opposition to alleged artistic snobbism, but rather in a variety of ways to the defence of its baneful social consequences’

Now, Adorno’s conclusions are not without worth: if considered in the context of a film such as Transformers: The Last Knight, it would certainly be worth evaluating the film’s actual artistic worth or lack thereof, instead of its ‘baneful social consequences’ in dumbing down audience expectation.

© Paramount Pictures. Hasbro.
If any film did deserve to come under the fire of some artistic snobbery, surely it should be Transformers: The Last Knight, a film that chooses to tell its story through bangs and booms? © Paramount Pictures. Hasbro.

And yet, Black Panther offers an exception. Because unlike Transformers: The Last Knight, or a large majority of blockbusters that crash into cinemas for that matter, the ‘innumerable people’ that Black Panther ‘touches’ are members of the Black Community, spectators who have yet to see their people and culture represented as dominantly or as confidently as in Ryan Coogler’s superhero film. Sure, we’ve had Stephen Norrington’s Blade (Wesley Snipes) and Pitof’s Catwoman (Halle Berry). But Black Panther is a different, more widespread beast entirely. To have an entire cast consist of characters that look like you, dress in garbs from a culture you grew up immersed in and operate as heroes with agency, power and authority: Can this not simply be enough? For an ethnic people to have the opportunity to see themselves represented on the big screen on such a large scale, in an uplifting manner? How could this be considered ‘baneful’ in the slightest?

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman faced similar circumstances. Despite near unanimous acclaim upon its release, the film has found itself subjected to a late wave of criticism, accusing its fans of overzealously appraising it. But can we not take a step back, remove ourselves from any technical or narrative flaws that the film might have, and simply embrace a female-led superhero movie? Its failings can be ironed out with later entries or films of its type: its immediate importance overshadows these issues. This same thesis applies for Black Panther. Deferring to Adorno once again, these films have come under the fire of an ‘artistic snobbism’ that seeks to define what art should be: but it only ever seems to be in the case of films that are celebrated for their representational optimism. Spider-Man: Homecoming, a film I find overrated, received no such criticisms. Despite rehashing set-pieces and narrative elements from Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, Marvel fans firmly proclaimed its ranking as the best adaptation of Spider-Man thus far. I’m not attacking Jon Watts’ film; I’m just providing an alternative example that provides evidence to my point.

© Warner Bros. DC Films.
A film that has faced an identical post-release crisis: Wonder Woman, an inspiring image for women, reduced to a critical consideration of its narrative and technical slip-ups: Gal Gadot as Diana Prince. © Warner Bros. DC Films.

Black Panther is an artistic vision, without a doubt. You cannot denunciate the project as mere, flawed entertainment because, with Ryan Coogler at the helm, the film is about so much more. Sure, it has the action, it has the spectacle, the costumes, the effects, the star-studded cast. But at its core, it deals in issues that Coogler, as an auteur, has handled before: anyone that has seen his masterful Fruitvale Station can attest to the moral parallels that run alongside Black Panther, in its subtle references to contemporary America and its treatment of the Black Community on the streets. This, in itself, would place it above and beyond many other Marvel movies, irrespective of the claims of its critics: Doctor Strange can hardly stand tall as a film that puts the taboo against witchcraft and wizardry to rest.

But even moving away from that, the social consequences of the film must override its cinematic worth, I feel. While Black Panther is, technically and narratively speaking, a good superhero film, it’s still a cultural landmark and an important moment for a community that has yet to see itself portrayed so positively. In this uncertain time, with the re-emergence of a strong ideology against civilised unity and cultural harmony, films like Black Panther provide visions of a future where this could change, where a definitive discourse is taking place, in order to break down the barriers that separate races from the necessary unison that must take place. Sure, it’s a superhero movie. But not to some. To them, it’s a refreshing image, a symphony of pride for its people and culture. So can we not just dump the art critic in us and allow this moment to flourish in full effect? It is fair, it is just and it is right.

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