Black Panther is releasing at a crucial cultural moment; one in which mainstream media may finally be ready to tackle true representation on screen and off, rather than merely paying lip service to the idea of diversity. Last year’s Wonder Woman was a triumph in this respect, giving the feature film debut of the feminist icon to a woman director. With Black Panther, Marvel has done something similar, handing writer/director Ryan Coogler the duties of introducing Wakanda to the world at large with a movie that is bold and unabashed in its blackness.
That Black Panther is also the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 18th movie and their ninth origin film and it still manages to be among their best yet is incredible. At this point in the game, it’s easy to call out the ‘Marvel Formula’ for being trite, but it’s this tried and true formula which gives Coogler the framework to make Black Panther more than just another superhero movie. There are layers upon layers to Black Panther, and in addition to being T’Challa’s first foray as a hero and king, Black Panther is also a reflection on family, dynasties, isolationism, oppression, colonialism, and so much more.
First introduced in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is now the ruling king of Wakanda and he must take on the challenges that come with a crown as well as being a superhero. Facing growing unrest at home, T’Challa sees an opportunity to capture the thief and arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) as a means of uniting his people and cementing himself as a good king. Yet, capturing Klaue only reveals a larger plan at work; one orchestrated by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an American and former black-ops soldier whose mysterious past hides a deep connection to Wakanda and its newly crowned king.
Black Panther is by no means the first black superhero movie, but it does feel like the first one to invest itself in the experiences of black people, making it as much a part of its narrative as the superhero action. This is most evident in the world-building, with Wakanda depicted as an afro-futuristic haven, untouched by the ugliness of the outside world and the ravages of colonialism and slavery. Through the film’s villain, Wakanda’s willful ignorance to the evils enacted against black people the world over is thrust back in the country’s face – specifically T’Challa’s, who then spends much of the film grappling with what role Wakanda should play in the world.
At times, Black Panther is Marvel’s most stunning film. Not only does the design of Wakanda look amazing – “This never gets old, ” T’Challa says when he again sets eyes on his kingdom – but cinematographer Rachel Morrison uses her shot composition to add an extra dimension to what’s happening on screen. As an example, after Killmonger arrives in Wakanda and turns the country’s traditions on their head, the camera reflects this with movement that literally turns the frame upside down. The action scenes also benefit from Morrison’s touch, with a particular standout being a fight scene filmed with a captivating tracking shot that’s then followed up by a thrilling car chase. Black Panther uses the visual language of filmmaking in ways most Marvel movies just don’t and it’s a welcomed change.
However, Black Panther is still plagued by some shoddy CGI work, which at this point, is just unacceptable. With such beautiful set and costume designs, it’s a downright shame to have them overshadowed by pixelated vistas and poorly realized visual effects, especially during the film’s final act.
Though villains don’t tend to be Marvel’s strong suit, Jordan’s Killmonger may just be their most nuanced baddie to date. Without spoiling too much, he is very much a character who looks on Wakanda as both a fairytale and a corrupt regime that’s lost sight of what’s most important. His character embodies the rage that stems from being oppressed as well as the sympathy earned from having every opportunity stripped away. Though his means are despicable and his attitude selfish and short-sighted, Killmonger is a villain whose perspective is wholly understandable, and he’s all the more threatening because of it.
For his second outing as Black Panther, Boseman builds on the strong performance he gave in Civil War. T’Challa is an understated character, with a wit and charm that is slowly revealed as Boseman interacts with his family and friends. Without the ego of Tony Stark and a different sense of duty than Steve Rogers, T’Challa juggles what it means to be a good person and a good king, striving to find a middle ground that sits well with his own conscious. It’s an inspiring and dignified performance that sets Boseman’s T’Challa on the path of being a new leader for the MCU at large.
Yet, for as great as both Boseman and Jordan are in their roles (as are Serkis and Martin Freeman in their reprisals of Klaue and Everett Ross, respectively), the real stars of Black Panther are the women. Surrounding T’Challa is an amazing supporting cast of women: Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, T’Challa’s former flame who operates as a spy for Wakanda; Danai Gurira’s Okoye, leader of the king’s personal guard, the Dora Milage, and an absolute badass; and Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and tech genius. Not only is it almost unheard of for a male lead to have a supporting cast of predominately women characters, but to have them be as well-developed and realized as Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri are is downright groundbreaking. Nakia, though a love interest for T’Challa, is very much her own person with her own goals and motivations; Okoye is a powerful warrior driven by a love of country and duty to her fellow Dora Milage as well as the throne; and Shuri is an impetuous free-spirit whose grasp of Wakandan tech makes her an invaluable ally to her brother. That for a portion of the film’s runtime it falls solely on these women to carry along the plot is even more impressive, presenting an equality rarely seen in the superhero genre.
Black Panther is an important film for its depiction of strong black characters (especially women) who are not solely defined by their blackness but have it as essential part of their being. For all that, Black Panther is never preachy or pandering, and it is really a lot funnier than many might expect. At times the humor may undercut a dramatic moment, but for the most part it works to humanize its characters, presenting them as flawed but relatable people. In this respect, Shuri is certain to be a fan favorite thanks to her teasing of her more serious older brother, and their sibling dynamic is one of the strongest elements in the film.
Black Panther accomplishes so much it’s astounding the whole movie doesn’t just collapse under the weight of it all. It’s at once a superhero adventure, a political thriller, heist movie, touching family drama, and an examination of how an ugly history leaves an impact on the present and future. Obviously, this is a testament to Coogler, his cast, and the whole Marvel movie-making machine, and it’s a film that absolutely raises the bar for the superhero films. Black Panther is a game-changer, and it’ll be inspiring to witness the effect it’s sure to have on those who can finally see themselves reflected in such an empowering film.