Marvel’s latest superhero film, Black Panther, is garnering both critical and fan accolades. In part, this is because it’s a Marvel movie: a big-budget action spectacular with the usual collection of fights, chases and set pieces. In part, this comes from how rare (indeed, practically unheard-of) it is to see a Hollywood blockbuster with not only a black lead but an almost entirely black cast. The handful of white actors in secondary roles draw striking attention to the kind of supporting roles usually reserved for black actors. But as much as for its individual characters, Black Panther is attracting critical notice for the eye-popping design of its main location, the fictitious, super-advanced African kingdom of Wakanda.
Ever since 2008’s Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have been defined by a more-or-less consistent aesthetic: a kind of glossy spy-fi look that tries to take the outrageous creations of comic artists and render them as things that would work in the “real” world. In many ways, this set of design decisions goes back even further, to the designs featured in 1998’s Blade and 2000’s X-Men. Brushed metal, glossy surfaces and seams, seams, seams have been the order of the day. There have been exceptions — the psychedelia of Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, the cartoony musical number in Captain America: The First Avenger, and the 70s-and-anime-inspired style of the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Thor: Ragnarok spring to mind — but for the most part, the visual inventiveness of Marvel films has been restrained, owing as much to action-movie convention as to superhero comics.
Until Black Panther, that is. In the segments set in Wakanda, Black Panther shows off a visual style completely unlike any of the other Marvel films, and pretty much unlike any other films in its genre, combining sci-fi elements with both traditional and contemporary African and African-influenced art. The result is breathtaking: despite strong performances from stars like Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Michael B. Jordan, Wakanda emerges as one of the movie’s main characters. So where did this African utopia come from?
Wakanda was introduced together with the character of Black Panther in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966. In its earliest incarnation it incorporates a mixture of elements of traditional African art with the combination of fantasy and science-fiction elements typical of Jack Kirby’s artwork.
Kirby’s images of leopard-skin clad tribesmen wielding futuristic blasters might raise a few eyebrows today, but they were partly intended to have that effect: although modern readers know Black Panther as a hero, he’s introduced as an ambiguous quasi-antagonist who does a quick face turn to become one of the FF’s most consistent allies.
Kirby’s envisioning of Wakanda fits into an artistic, musical, literary and cultural movement that was developing throughout the 1950s and 60s. Dubbed “Afrofuturism” by later writers, this movement incorporated elements of mythology, traditional and modern African art, fantasy and science fiction to create images of an African-influenced future and cosmos. Afrofuturist visual art ranges from commentary on the “alien” status of African-Americans to attempts to envision a technologically liberated future without (or overcoming) the legacies of European colonialism. Perhaps the most famous face of Afrofuturism was Sun-Ra, whose music drew on science-fiction and mythological themes that manifested in a distinctive theatrical style.
Over the decades, Wakanda’s presentation developed in line with prevailing trends in design. Apart from a few iconic elements, very little of the film’s Wakanda is drawn directly from Kirby’s original image. That’s no bad thing: direct lifts from Kirby would look pretty dated more than 50 years on. Instead, Black Panther is one of the few Marvel movies that comes close to delivering the experience of reading a Kirby comic: an eye-popping riot of detail that draws on a huge range of influences but isn’t precisely any one of them any more than, say, Westeros maps to any one European culture or historical period.
For all the attention that’s going to be lavished on the costumes, weapons, and gadgets of Black Panther, the parts I want to revisit most are the street scenes, crowded urban marketplaces packed with a wealth of detail. Props, sets and costumes all reveal the lives of ordinary Wakandans, revealing a society that is connected — but not identical — to the lives of the politicians, scientists and aristocrats who make up most of the film’s cast. Here, as much as in the warriors of the Dora Milaje, the viewer gets to see something truly groundbreaking. And that, for all that they’re good fun, is something we don’t get to see in a lot of Marvel movies.