Black Panther is important, in part because it is a tremendous celebration of identity and criticism of the system that manhandles the view of ourselves. But it’s also important because it is successful in all the ways Marvel executives would hope on the baseline with thrill and spectacle and action. It’s a momentous stride signaling that we aren’t just ready for more thoughtful, consequential action in our blockbusters—we’re hungry for it.
It’s a notion that the MCU has been lagging behind when the comic book world has made strides towards it long ago. It’s been three years, after all, since Jane Foster took up the mantle of Thor. Even before that, we had a woman win the Black Panther title from the gods not through might but through intelligence and sacrifice. But take look at the most dominant series of films in the history of Hollywood and it feels like a Spike TV board meeting: cis hetero white man after cis hetero white man rising to power with women and minorities gleefully at their side.
That’s why a standalone movie about the King of Wakanda is so vitally important. It is not just the start of one movement but many movements. (Hell, the pre-release hype alone was enough to kick out some new information on the long-awaited and criminally ignored Black Widow movie.) It is putting big, scary, critical ideas on a huge, paralyzingly visible platform. After all, when was the last time you saw this many white people coming to defend and see a movie that, at its core, is about an entirely black country being the most powerful nation on the planet?
Because that is Wakanda. We got brief peeks of it when T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) made his debut in the terrific Captain America: Civil War, but here, the idea is made solid. Having just taken over the throne of his home country after his father died in a terrorist attack, T’Challa must cement his hold of the somewhat uneasily united nation of tribes and the title of Black Panther, a role given to any challenger able to best the current king and empowered by a mystical Heart-Shaped Herb.
And this setup is where director/co-writer Ryan Coogler shines. He knows how to establish complex, seemingly unremarkable stakes as the truly immense wagers they are. For instance, we open the movie in a scene in Oakland in 1992 with two men planning a heist of some sort. We don’t truly understand why until much later, but it already lays the groundwork that Wakanda is hidden for good reason, and the threat of its exposure is both an immeasurable risk and reward to all.
It’s a contrast that is foundational to this story, and it’s a nuanced view on heroism that the MCU simply hasn’t tackled yet. Nearly categorically, they’ve always had to do with an attack on a personal deficiency that has to be overcome to save the world/galaxy/whatever. There’s a bit of that here (they’re not gonna let go of the wheel completely) but T’Challa’s conflict is much, much more interesting.
As king, he has to maintain Wakandan life. He has to ensure they are freely and fully capable of living the lives they want, working within or without all the technological advances their country has to offer. But even then, he has to resolve this odd philosophical divide of whether such technology is in direct opposition to his pledge to maintain their country’s heritage and culture, a concept physically embodied in his younger sister Shuri’s (Letitia Wright) technical, Q-like prowess. Surely this Iron Man-esque suit wasn’t what the Panther God had in mind.
But T’Challa also has a personal code of his own that is pushing back against what many Wakandans hold as vital to their survival. The idea of accepting refugees is rebutted wholeheartedly by his best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), mirroring that of the worst our current and very real world: “they bring their problems with them.” Once you let them in, in other words, we become as bad as they are as they pillage our paradise. But in T’Challa’s eyes, it’s that we can make them as good as we are. It’s either his people or his morals, another facet better represented in T’Challa’s former lover and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
It’s refreshingly complex in the face of so many superhero stories that refuse to go beyond you killed my friend/parent/whatever so now our conflict is up against this bomb that’s about to go off or something. There’s a wealth of layers mined here. How do you overlook helping those that helped themselves to the ownership of your ancestors? Of every nation of the world, really. Do borders extend to morality or do they end at the map?
T’Challa’s journey works all the better because of the villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). We first meet him working in tandem with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), stealing vibranium wherever they can find it and selling it to the highest bidder. But as the movie goes on, we find his true motivations, and they are a fantastic foil to T’Challa’s struggles.
At its base, Killmonger’s frustrations are with Wakanda not doing all it can to right injustices in the world. Those slave ships that transported and killed so many of his ancestors? Untouched by this hidden and misapplied power. And now the black lives suffering in America? A blind eye and a cold shoulder from the mightiest country in the world. And this is all while America simply makes itself stronger while ignoring the inequalities its power is built on.
It’s a contrast that flexes the broad swings of issues at hand while pulling back the covers on the finer nuances of them. Jordan himself compared it saliently to the relationship between Charles Xavier and Magneto of the X-Men franchise. This collection of people that bear a power also bear a responsibility. What that responsibility is, however, is the pendulum that swings.
This is bolstered by Jordan and Boseman’s performances. For as infinitely regal and tender Boseman presents T’Challa while giving him ample opportunity to flex his understated but tremendous physical strength, Jordan is truly the highlight here. He is damn near incendiary, showing off every angle of this flickering rage of his character. It whips and warps into different entities, from casual malice to boisterous contempt to unyielding indignation before fanning out into a hurt, broken mess—a boy acting on a singular, unwavering pain.
The story makes his motives relatable, shining a huge Hollywood blockbuster-sized light on the void where justice should be. Of course he wants a remedy, restitution for the centuries of oppression of his people. Who wouldn’t? But it’s his performance of a pointed and blazing wildfire that makes us actually root for him at times. He is the villain all other villains wish they could effect.
It’s a sentiment shared by much of the cast. Martin Freeman works well as the CIA agent Everett Ross doing his best just to keep up with this Wakanda-shaped revelation, but the truly remarkable work happens with Wright and Danai Gurira’s Okoye. Wright is the technophile sibling of T’Challa, working as much to honor her heritage as to further her nation’s standing in a world of rapid advances. She’s impossibly spritely, acting as a beaming lighthouse of energy in the reserved court of T’Challa’s reign. Charming, funny, infinitely emotive. (Qualities we see in this fourth season of Black Mirror, too.)
And Gurira as Okoye, the head of the elite all-female warrior force Dora Milaje, is tremendously powerful. She’s gentle and pliable when the scene calls for it, but her unrelenting traditionalism shines through her physicality. She may not have the Heart-Shaped Herb flowing through her, but there’s never a single doubt in your mind that she is just as capable as the Black Panther. She is all you need to fully believe in Wakanda’s status as a global power.
Physicality is something Coogler has shown an incredible knack in directing, too. As with Creed, he’s capable of giving momentum to action that swings from side to side with all the inescapable grip of a ripping, wild tornado. The chase sequence in South Korea is one of the best set pieces in the entire MCU, rendering a visual flair to the whirling, grand, funny, and poignant components of each crash, flip, and hit.
Even when punches and kicks aren’t involved, Coogler and costume designer Ruth Carter has found a keen eye. The Afrofuturist sheen is liberally applied here but with a specificity that many worldbuilders miss. It’s colorful in the same way Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok but with a fresh and invigorating purpose. (The fear, of course, is that come this Halloween season, we’ll see a renewed public display of misunderstanding cultural appropriation.)
In fact, that is perhaps the prevailing problem here with Black Panther. For as prodigious and monumental as it is in its mere existence along with its superb execution, it does flails here and there in its themes. Much smarter people have written about it in much better ways, but the flattening and hijacking of Killmonger’s mission with T’Challa’s indulgence in respectability politics, as is the aggressive otherizing of Killmonger among the absurdly unaware Wakandan populace of their brothers and sisters’ plight across the globe.
And with all the praise that is being heaped on this movie (as it should be), it’s worrying to think that white audiences (or at least the ones that have yet to live a marginalized life) will assume all the work is done. A black president, a black Marvel movie—we’re good, right?
That, however, isn’t the work of the movie nor its purpose. It’s rather a nice starting point for discourse to occur once we’re done talking about the categorically impressive performances and the dazzling action and finely honed narrative voice. And that makes it an unexpectedly large socially aware cherry atop one of the best sundaes in recent memory.
I told you we were hungry.
Final Score: 9 out of 10