The emergence of superhero movies as a boon for Hollywood has long been frustratingly monolithic in the demographics of its said superheroes. So for that reason alone, a superhero story as profoundly and unabashedly African featuring a cast of almost exclusively non-white actors like Black Panther is an achievement worth celebrating and championing in and of itself. But Black Panther is remarkable not just for bringing some added diversity to the genre. This is because the movie is also really good.
Picking up one week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie thankfully leaves most of its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continuity behind as it focuses in on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his newfound task of ruling the hidden kingdom of Wakanda. Wakanda is a highly technological society thanks to the discovery of vibranium (made-up superhero mineral that is also the source of Black Panther’s power) and is made up of five tribes who have effectively hidden their presence from the rest of the world. And with the assassination of T’Challa’s father comes a period of upheaval and change that he needs to navigate through.
Fortunately he is surrounded by a scene-stealing cadre of women starting with his tech-nerd sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who acts as Black Panther’s weapons and technology R&D department and the one who repeatedly deflates T’Challa’s aura by constantly ribbing him. In other words, she’s a much cooler Q. She is joined by the twin powerhouses of Lupita Nyong’o who puts in a typically fiery and witty performance as T’Challa ex and Wakandan spy Nakia and Danai Gurai as Okoye, the commander of the Wakandan royal guard. The performances of these three women are some of the highlights of this movie and a breath of fresh air to a cinematic universe that up to this point has had at best a handful of compelling female characters.
On the other side of the aisle lie the two prerequisite villains of this piece from which most (but not all) of the conflict comes. The first is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms smuggler and frequent antagonist to Wakanda whose reappearance unearths old wounds amongst T’Challa’s allies. But it is the second villain, Michael B. Jordan’s American black ops expert Killmonger with ambitions for the Wakandan throne and a desire to use Wakandan technology to inspire an uprising amongst the oppressed black people of the world who is the much more compelling antagonist.
With Killmonger Black Panther manages to overcome to usual MCU curse of having interesting protagonists match up against forgettable villains. This is primarily because Killmonger is not just a big bad with a gun, but has an underlying motive that is believable and more importantly undercuts the simplistic semblance of morality that Wakanda, and T’Challa by extension, have used to build up their society. The confrontation between Killmonger and Black Panther thus becomes as much a clash between the competing philosophies of militaristic activism and a more cautious and diplomatic approach as much as it is about people punching one another. And more importantly, Coogler and crew are wise to make Killmonger’s viewpoint sound not like the manic diatribes of a madman, but a well-developed argument from a reasoned person who might have a point. As a result Black Panther‘s central conflict is the first that actually seems rooted in actual human history, making it all the more compelling. Though Marvel has had dalliances with real-world parallels, Black Panther is the only movie in its canon that feels relevant beyond the capes and cowls.
Of course the general intelligence with which the central conflict is portrayed should not distract you from the fact that this is a superhero movie, and on that front Black Panther still provides the requisite thrills of the genre and sometimes excellently so. There is a sequence that takes place in Busan that includes a car chase to rival the best Fast and Furious set-pieces and a casino scene that evokes Bond while also including an intimate and impressive one-shot fight scene. Coogler, who cut his teeth choreographing boxing matches on Rocky spinoff Creed, has a special and distinctive knack for setting the fight scenes so that there is a grand elegance to the fight sequences while remaining visceral. And thankfully, unlike most superhero movies in the past, the end is not some mindless and impossibly enormous battle sequence, but rather is a battle in which almost every major conflict is filled with emotional and philosophical weight with an ending that is just a little subversive for our age of political ideology purity (from both the left and right).
This movie also continues the fantastic trend that started with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (which was the first MCU movie to shoot in 8K) of looking absolutely gorgeous. Wakanda is easily one of the most vibrant locations envisioned in the MCU and this is down to the superlative work by the production design. The costumes on both the men and women are not just evocative of their culture but embody their characters so thoroughly. And the visuals are complemented by an actually distinctive soundtrack that borrows heavily from traditional African music and hip hop (featuring an on-top-of-his-game Kendrick Lamar), all of which culminates in providing us a movie in the MCU that for the first time feels like it is rooted in a culture and a place, and deals with issues like race and identity in a way that feels analogous to our own world.
And this brings me to my final point. Superheroes, and the movies that portray them, are meant to inspire us regular folk to heroism of a humbler but probably more necessary kind. And for so long I, as a nonwhite comic book love, have had to view heroism through the prism of White American culture. My superheroes was never really one of my own. So while I have some minor quibbles of this not-nearly perfect film (The films sags a little in the final third as it struggles to get all the major pieces in place for a final battle. And why exactly was Martin Freeman needed for this movie?) most of these objections are negated by the simple joy and inspiration of seeing a nonwhite story of pure and unadulterated heroism, that doesn’t try to shy away from the culture in which it is set in but rather blatantly celebrates it, and is told with grace, intelligence, and depth. Clearly audiences have responded. Hopefully Hollywood would take note and take the right lessons away from the movie’s success.
As Shuri tells her brother at some point, “Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.” It seems that Marvel has taken that to heart.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurai, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya
Runtime: 134 minutes