There’s a lot to be said for Black Panther, much of it already available elsewhere, conveyed by writers and reviewers and audience members whose personal connection to the movie is much stronger than mine. So I don’t have a whole lot of interest trying to speak for them. That’s not this review.
The movie has a political energy that its other Marvel Cinematic Universe brethren lack, a sense of existing in the here-and-now. Where it fails, it fails of a kind with the other movies, but never to the same degree. Where it soars? It brings the entire enterprise up a level and then some, with a keener eye for character development, villainous motivation and world building.
Black Panther is a direct sequel to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which introduced T’Challa, new King of the hidden African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is the richest, most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Their access to Vibranium (the alien metal in Captain America’s shield and the metal the Avengers tussled with Ultron over in 2015’s Age of Ultron) allowed them to jump ahead of every other country while also keeping their developments cloaked from the rest of the world. The previous movie gave us T’Challa’s first mission as the Black Panther, the super-powered dual-identity wielded by Wakanda’s King to protect the nation from outsiders and usurpers. Black Panther takes T’Challa, and the audience, back to Wakanda, where the political dynamics of the isolated nation, and the debate over what role it could — or should — play in the international community, cause problems for the King.
Because it is a sequel, the narrative structure of Black Panther — co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) — is freed from the expository burden of a traditional superhero origin story and instead uses the space for first-act exposition to flesh out Wakandan culture. There are five tribes; four living in the main city or its outskirts with one divorced from the rest, which lives in the mountains surrounding the nation. Trial by combat is a practiced tradition to determine the leader of the nation. The Panther Cult is the predominant ruling tribe. They worship Bast, and the person who carries the mantle of Black Panther drinks from the “heart-shaped herb,” which endows both superhuman strength and spiritual enlightenment. The Panther, as ruler, is also the avatar of Wakanda. His or her family is protected by the all-woman warrior guard called the Dora Milaje. Although isolated, the Wakandans have spies in every country on Earth, keeping track of threats to their country and cataloging the development of the outside world.
The exposition is mostly delivered effortlessly as T’Challa officially becomes King. We meet his ex-girlfriend, the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); his warrior friend, Okoye (Danai Gurira), who leads the Dora Milaje; his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Tony Stark-level genius Shuri (Letitia Wright, who steals every one of her scenes). Unlike other worlds presented by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wakanda feels fleshed out, fully existing as a place in the present with real political turmoil. It’s what they should have done with Asgard. Wakanda is a country whose inhabitants’ stories are as important as T’Challa’s. Black Panther represents Wakanda in the fictional realm of the MCU, so it’s fitting his movie is truly about the nation itself.
A hero is only as good as is villain, and Michael B. Jordan is electric as antagonist Erik Killmonger, a former U.S. Special Ops soldier whose knowledge of Wakanda hides a dark national secret. Jordan has always been Coogler’s not-so-secret weapon, and he’s unleashed here in full fury. Comparisons have been made to Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight (as will every villain in one of these movies, forever), and, sure, performance-wise that is absolutely the case. But Killmonger is a villain whose motivations are much more sympathetic, whose pain is real and whose vision for Wakanda challenges every single character in the film in unique ways. It’s an ensemble film, but his performance is the true standout.
Other notable performances, for the sake of completion: Martin Freeman is back as Everett Ross, and he’s fine. Andy Serkis is back as Ulysses Klaue and is impossible not to enjoy.
My review of Thor: Ragnarok touched on that movie’s dalliance with actual thematic depth through Thor’s realization that the dark colonial past of Asgard had to be destroyed to move his culture forward. That film never really commits to being about that, though. Black Panther does. It’s explicitly about, well, a number of very relevant political themes I don’t want to spoil. It is, more than Ragnarok, truly a battle for the soul of a nation with competing political perspectives on how it should move forward. Ragnarok and Panther both deal with new kings coming to grips with their fathers’ sins, learning what it means to lead and finding a path forward for their people under the shadow of colonial impulses. They’re an interesting thematic duo, and perhaps a broader (and minimally spoiler-ific) lesson to take from both is that Marvel Studios, as a company, is working hard to translate the more archaic elements of its 1960s-based storytelling into the more complex moral universe of contemporary popular culture.
And yet I mentioned “where it fails.” One problem Marvel has run into is that its stories and characters are so charming and interesting that the requisite action set pieces sometimes feel overlong and superfluous. I’ve long been an apologist because Marvel has done such a good job creating action sequences that still convey character and story, but nonetheless several sequences felt like they could have been cut further down here. It’s a matter of taste. Certainly the final action sequence needed to (and does) provide payoff for a half-dozen characters, but it still feels longer than necessary. It is not the worst offender in their oeuvre, but the world of Wakanda is so fleshed out and interesting, the characters so well-defined and insightful, that I would have enjoyed more of them sitting around, talking, debating, emoting.
Again, there are other writers and critics who can speak for what Black Panther means to black audiences and women audiences, and everyone else who is now represented by an A-list superhero movie, and even more writers who will talk about how Black Panther is the perfect movie to kick off the 10th year of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pushing the franchise into newer, more challenging stories. You should find those articles. They’re everywhere, and insightful. Those aren’t my articles to write. My bottom line is that Black Panther is a great entry into the franchise and a great movie in its own right, a unique take on the characters and a broadening of what superhero movies can take on. Highly recommended.