by Pastor David Locklair
Black Panther is the 18th feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chronologically it takes place immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), which introduced the character of T’Challa, son of king T’Chaka of the fictional African country of Wakanda. Some spoilers for both films are contained in the following review.
The premise of Black Panther revolves around T’Challa taking up the mantle of Black Panther and the throne of Wakanda following the death of T’Chaka, and then defending both against the villain Killmonger. T’Challa successfully ascends the throne and secures the mantle of Black Panther at the start of the film but then is challenged for both by the arrival in Wakanda of Erik Stevens (Killmonger). Erik is actually the son of T’Chaka’s rogue brother and is therefore given the right to challenge T’Challa.
One recurring complaint of critics directed against the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the villains tend to be generically used and underdeveloped (with the exception of the wildly popular Loki). Black Panther does not repeat these mistakes. Killmonger has a complex story and excellent character development. He is at times purely the villain and at times conflicted and evocative of sympathy. In such a portrayal, he seems more “real” than other MCU villains. Though perhaps not given enough screen time, secondary villain Ulysses Klaue is also well-portrayed. Comparisons to Health Ledger’s portrayal in the Dark Knight (2008) are exaggerated, but also are an indicator of how much Klaue resonated with audiences.
The film itself takes a thought-provoking look at themes of family, justice, and isolationism. T’Challa’s interactions with his mother (Ramonda) and sister (Shuri) are highlights of the film. By film’s end, T’Challa has had to wrestle immensely with the concept of justice, and a powerful character arc in this regard is given a satisfying conclusion. Rather than delivering a heavy-handed message, the film offers a balanced approach in its political themes.
Another highlight of the film is its stunning use of African landscape and music. These truly add to the epic scale of the film and make Black Panther entirely unique within the MCU. Though Wakanda and its people are fictional, the film does draw on much real-life African imagery and history.
In drawing upon the history of Africa, the film makes use of aspects of traditional African religions and spirituality as well as fictional aspects of Black Panther’s mythology. What follows is a Scriptural look at some of those things.
The Creation of the World:
The film begins with a character retelling the story of Wakanda. In so doing, he references billions of years and the so-called “big bang.” Typically, the MCU movies have stayed away from explicit references to the model of evolution with the exception of this scene and discussions about the origins of the Infinity Stones in other films. It is frustrating to see such conclusions presented as if they were “settled science,” especially since the films’ storylines do not require such references.
As Christians, we know what Scripture says about the origins of the universe. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). We know that the Word of God is true and contains no falsehood or error (John 10:35, II Timothy 3:6, II Peter 1:21). Undermining the Genesis account of creation would also undermine the Biblical account of salvation. Death entered the world through Adam’s sin (in the model of evolution death is simply a natural part of the evolutionary process and began long before there were human beings) (Romans 5:12). Christ Jesus came to undo the results of the fall of Adam and Eve (Romans 5:15-17). There is no way to reconcile an evolutionary model with Scripture.
Black Panther references the goddess Bast throughout the film. It is said in the movie’s beginning that she led the first Black Panther to the “heart-shaped herb” (a plant that gives the Black Panther his superpowers). In the rest of the film, the name of Bast is invoked in thanksgiving and even abused much as people today take God’s name in vain by using it as an interjection. The careful observer will be struck that Bast plays no real role outside of the story recounted at the beginning of the film. Bast does not intervene or help in any way. She makes no appearance whatsoever. With the exception of her aiding the first discovery of the heart-shaped herb, it seems she does nothing at all in the life of the Wakandans, past or present. She truly comes across as a god far off and distant.
By contrast, the God of Scripture, the one true God, is quite different. He is One in essence (Deuteronomy 6:4) and yet there are three Persons of the Godhead (Matthew 28:19). He is active and involved in our history. In true, verifiable history, God has acted. He has created the world. Christ has taken on human flesh and lived a perfect life and died bearing our sin for our salvation. Our Lord continues to directly interact with us. He comes to us in His Word (Romans 10:17), in Baptism (Acts 2:38), and in Holy Communion (Matthew 26:26-28). He comes to us with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. He comes to us in these means of grace to strengthen us as we await the fullness of our salvation in the life to come. Thanks be to God that the true God is not the invention of human imagination, but rather the God who interacts with us for our salvation.
Both T’Challa and Killmonger experience visions of the “ancestral plane.” The ancestral plane is presented as a parallel dimension where souls live on outside of the body. Here they meet and speak with their fathers who have entered into the afterlife. In Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa explains the afterlife this way: “In my culture, death is not the end. It’s more of a stepping-off point. You reach out with both hands, and Bast and Sekhmet, they lead you into the green veld where you can run forever.” In that film, he seems to dismiss the notion of the afterlife as myth, but in Black Panther he is clearly convinced. The ancestral plane struck me as being presented as less than “fully real.” It appears in a dreamlike state and seems to lack the tangible reality of actual existence.
By contrast, Scripture presents the afterlife as “fully real.” It seems to be a hallmark of the film industry that the afterlife gets presented in an ethereal fashion. Yet, that is not how God’s Word presents the afterlife. In hell, the unbeliever will be in very real suffering. In hell, the unbeliever will experience very real punishment of mind, body, and soul. However, in heaven, the Christian will be in the very real presence of the very real God. We will see the very real Christ who took on very real flesh for our salvation. We will be raised to heaven with our very real bodies. St. Paul beautifully presents these truths in I Corinthians 15. Heaven is not some vague dreamlike state. Heaven is not some less than real incorporeal existence. Heaven is no less real than this earthly existence, and yet it is different in that it is glorious perfection in the presence of our Savior.
Black Panther is an important cultural phenomenon. Representation of ethnic minorities is often limited in the American film industry. The casual fan may not be able to readily think of a single superhero on film who is not portrayed as Caucasian. Due to the massive success of Black Panther, that is certainly no longer the case. Black Panther is the biggest financial success of any Hollywood film to feature both a minority director (Ryan Coogler) and a predominantly minority cast. The worldwide box office take was $1,345,917,727 as of June 2018. As someone who grew up surrounded by minority culture, and as a parent of minority children, I hope that the success of Black Panther will spark greater ethnic diversity in the superhero film genre.
More than that, I pray that as Christians we take to heart the words of Scripture. There is truly only one race, the human race. All people share a common ancestry through Noah (Genesis 9). All are the creation of our heavenly Father. The sins of all have been atoned for by the blood of the Son (John 1:36). All who believe in the Son are children of God. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). These truths tear down the racism and discrimination which dwell within the sinful nature.
Black Panther is one of the most well-balanced of the MCU movies. Character development, thematic arcs, musical score, and stunning imagery are all great successes of this film. Parents should note that the film definitely earns its PG-13 rating. It is violent. It is intense. It has several heart-breaking moments. It tackles difficult issues. It also provides an opportunity not only to enjoy a wonderfully crafted superhero movie but to discuss larger themes as well.