As the most substantial film Marvel Studios has made to date, Black Panther has a lot going on. With a nearly all-black cast and few ties to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film allowed co-writer/director Ryan Coogler to dig deep into thematic issues he felt important to tackle with a story of this kind. Indeed, in telling the story of T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) ascent to the throne, Black Panther forces its characters to question their place in the world—do they owe it to those of African descent elsewhere to share their technology and weapons and offset their oppression, or do they maintain their isolationist position as they have for centuries? The entry of Michael B. Jordan’s American-raised Killmonger offers a contrast between the African and African-American experience, and the film digs deep into the complex issues of racism, violence, and combatting oppression in a way that offers no easy answers.
But Black Panther digs into other thematic issues as well, and one in particular strikes as being unique in the pantheon of machismo-focused superhero movies: masculinity. Black Panther is an undeniably female-focused film. T’Challa may be the Black Panther, but his most trusted allies, advisors, and generals are all women. The smartest person in the world? Shuri (Letitia Wright). Wakanda’s greatest spy? Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). The personal bodyguards of the Black Panther? All women, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira). This is no accident, and in the character of T’Challa, Coogler and Boseman present a man with enough self-confidence to know when the women around him are his betters. His relationship with Shuri, for instance, is not quite the James Bond/Q repartee—Shuri doesn’t look to T’Challa for acceptance or praise, she knows she’s got the goods. She’s showing them off, and even uses him as a test subject.
It’s about more than gender equality, however, as the film takes a pretty serious look at fragile masculinity and the way in which men are raised to deal with (or not deal with, more often than not) their emotions. T’Challa and Killmonger both openly weep at multiple points in the film, as two incredibly strong men struggling to come to terms with their pasts, and specifically their relationships with their fathers. But T’Challa is also strong enough to know the way T’Chaka (John Kani) led is not the way he wants to lead, while Killmonger—who lost his father as a young boy—has nothing but revenge on his mind. In his world, it’s an eye for an eye, and it shows how men can be tempted to do what’s expected rather than what’s right.
Young boys are told to “be a man” or “man up,” both of which are loaded commands. What does it mean to be a “man” in this context? Don’t cry. Don’t be overly emotional. If someone wrongs you or your family, handle it with your fists. Be strong. Fight. Don’t run. Don’t try and talk your way out, that’s for sissies. Make your dad/uncle/brothers/cousins proud. Physical violence is masculine. Diplomacy is feminine, and in a masculine-fueled world, there’s seemingly no greater sin for a man than to show signs of femininity.
Killmonger verbalizes this mentality when he arrives in Wakanda, seeking to take the throne away from T’Challa. His father was murdered by T’Chaka. He can’t change that. But he can “make it right” by fighting T’Challa to the death. He’s not here to talk or be diplomatic, he’s here to “get his.” To be fair, as per the ritual combat the Wakandan leaders do physically fight to settle disagreements of who should be in charge, but the film is aware of the silliness of that logic. Okoye says she can’t run away with Nakia, Shuri, and Ramonda because she swore an oath to protect the Black Panther whoever that may be, citing the ritual. But Nakia fires back, pointing out that just because Killmonger “won” the ritual combat doesn’t make him a good or worthy king. Screw what’s expected of you; do what’s right.
Indeed, many of the women in the film are far more advanced in their thinking and actions than many of the men. This is reflected in one strongly emotional moment, when T’Challa resurfaces and the Wakandan men look to W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) to see what to do. Do they follow Killmonger’s orders and attack T’Challa, or do they stand down and turn on Killmonger? W’Kabi, driven by his anger towards Klaue for the death of his parents and desire to follow Killmonger’s New World Order—in which the oppressed rise up with violence against their oppressors—decides to attack T’Challa, and the rest of the men follow suit. Because that’s what they’re expected to do.
The all-female Dora Milaje, however, turns on Killmonger. They do what’s right. It’s a striking sight, to see the men attacking T’Challa and the Dora Milaje fighting with passion against Killmonger, and it visualizes an emotional contrast.