Talk of “superhero fatigue” has been going for a few years now, and with Marvel Studios largely at the center of those discussions, all eyes have been on each release, waiting to jump on finding reason to say it all needs to stop. After 10 years of impossibly solid consistent output, there have been some great ones, some good ones, but there is nothing that can be labeled as terrible or really even mediocre. Black Panther, a longtime Marvel stalwart, is now in a feature film of his own, after an incredibly impressive character introduction in Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) took up the mantle of the King of Wakanda in that film, but here, he must take that on and lead his people. That setup makes it sound distinct from many other superhero films, and that is definitely the case here. Here we get a good story and incredible world-building to allow us to dive deep into the lore of Wakanda and its five tribes that make up the nation.
Through two extremely effective opening scenes, we get acclimated to the story at hand:
- We open in Oakland, California in 1992 with a scene in an apartment that, while initially confusing with how it might fit in, proves to be the crux of the entire film.
- T’Challa is told the story of his people as a boy through voice-over in an animated flashback sequence; centuries ago, a meteorite struck the continent of Africa, and the area was left marked with a metal that was new to man: vibranium. That name should sound familiar to Marvel fans, as it is the nigh-indestructible substance used to make Captain America’s shield and to build Ultron in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Wakandan people, over time, have utilized it in a variety of ways, and each of their tribes have come to co-exist peacefully under the leadership of their king, embued with the powers of the Black Panther. Their technological and societal advancements and vast wealth of vibranium have been hidden from the world…until now.
The first of these scenes is a great cold open, anchored by the always solid performance of Sterling K. Brown; providing any more details spoils some of the richest parts of it all. The second is necessary exposition that is handled well and gets us up and running with a world that is easy to understand, but very much different to what we are used to seeing (yes, even in the Marvel Universe). One could say that Asgard from the Thor films and royal family of the Inhumans on ABC tread similar ground, but there is a cultural richness that those lack that adds so much to what we experience here.
And on that note, I will address this incredible strength to this film. While Wakanda is undeniably a fictional place, it carries with it something that moviegoing audiences have rarely experienced: a beautiful regality reflected by its depiction of African culture. My entire life, if a movie is featured in Africa, we see modern-day pirates, despots, and warlords or, if we see groups of people, they are always in need of some outside peoples to help them. As I write this review, I reflect upon the beautiful fact of seeing many of my African-American friends reveling in a cultural watershed moment: we have a film, an unabashed Hollywood blockbuster, that features a mostly black cast telling an incredible story that celebrates Africa and all it has added to our world culture. I know some will say, “We’ve had black superhero movies before; what about Meteor Man, Blank Man, or Blade?” Well, the former two were satires and send-ups of superhero conventions, and Blade features Wesley Snipes as the titular hero, but he is more of a cipher than most in a film that is more horror than hero. Here, T’Challa is an inspiration throughout. In the same way that Steve Rogers acts as a beacon of hope as Captain America, T’Challa inspires through his good nature and resolve. Regardless of skin color, we have a cinematic hero who inspires us all to lead well by striving to do the right thing. It’s that drive in our hero and the beautiful and well-executed backdrop of Wakanda that act as the foundation for this film’s strength.
With regards to the cast, they deliver solidly, top to bottom. With a large number and so many moving parts to this film, I won’t go long, but I do want to highlight some of them here. Chadwick Boseman has proven himself to be a very capable actor in recent years, and he carries this film ably. I know in future Marvel installments, his character, T’Challa, is going to be more and more important, and I can’t wait to see what all he brings to the table. Danai Gurira, as Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje, is given opportunity to impress with acting (and action) chops beyond what we’ve seen in seasons of her portrayal of Michonne on The Walking Dead. Letitia Wright is funny and sassy as Shuri, the sister of T’Challa and scientific mastermind behind the amazing tech in Wakanda; everytime she’s on screen, she commands your attention. Another with that same effect was Michael B. Jordan, who plays Eric Killmonger, a villain who has definite motivations and audience sympathies as we discover why he does what he does (I am not afraid to admit that his is the first Marvel villain that brought tears to my eyes). Tearing through scenes with a justifiable rage and ferocity that life has delivered him, he is, by far, one of the greatest Marvel film villains yet and, alongside Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming, shows that the studio has taken criticisms about their “villain problem” to heart. Andy Serkis amps up the crazy for Ulysses Klaue, a villain we were introduced to in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and after losing an arm then comes back with some surprises here. Winston Duke makes for a great M’Baku, also known to comic readers as Man-Ape, and some of his moments were my favorite in the film.
I didn’t know what to expect with the action sequences and plotting of the film, but as I watched, I realized this is essentially a James Bond movie by design, filled with globe-trotting, techno gadgets galore, and harrowing action set-pieces. That may be a change of pace for superhero fans used to a different experience, but this film shows how incredibly versatile the Marvel Universe is at allowing different types of stories to be told. To be clear, there are conventional things on display here, but everything plays out in a different way than Marvel Cinematic Universe fans may be used to. In my opinion, this is an incredibly necessary thing to do after so many MCU films over the past 10 years. There are car chases, flight sequences, hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, and battlefront combat on display here, so really, there’s something for everyone. It does make for a violent film, but I never felt it was gratuitous or boundary-pushing.
With regards to content beyond the violence and action, I thought objectionable content was minimal. There were no off-color sexual jokes or scenes here, and the minimal language was almost exclusively uttered by villains. Jokey and/or angsty heroes in many superhero films pop-off comments that are imitable and inappropriate for many of the children who look up to these heroes, and in this regard, T’Challa is further highlighted as an honorable character by being someone to look up to and follow from his example. Similarly to Wonder Woman last summer, we are beginning to see a reaction to critiques that heroes in our modern day can’t be fully virtuous, and seeing these critiques proven wrong has been a pleasure to witness, especially as a parent of children who love all things superhero. This film left me with so many parallels for the Church that I want to plan a youth trip to see it soon, just so we can discuss them all afterwards. The isolationist viewpoint of Wakanda gives the Church opportunity to ponder the necessity of evangelism in a world that is hurting and dying without the gift of Christ in their lives. Also, the justifiable resentment and hatred felt and expressed by Killmonger paints a parallel to how the unsaved see the Church, blaming believers today for the problems of the past. T’Challa’s rallying cry for unity and cooperation is an inspiration to believers and non-believers alike, who see a world that is seemingly unraveling all around us.
In closing, I do my best to leave the film unspoiled, but I urge audiences to embrace the vision of director, Ryan Coogler. After witnessing him coming on the scene with Fruitvale Station and continuing the classic Rocky series through Creed (both starring Michael B. Jordan), I knew he would be a fantastic choice for a telling a very human story. I was not disappointed here in the slightest. Alongside that, tasking Kendrick Lamar with help on the music and score gives the film a distinct flavor in comparisons to the MCU, and it enhanced it all throughout. Strip away the special effects, and there is still a story that needs to be told. Black Panther addresses the topics of race, colonization, isolationism, exploitation, vengeance, social justice, and countless other topics in creative ways that don’t feel forced at all. They fit within the framework of a story that comes at a time we need it. As I’ve thought about this film, its plot and all the things I don’t reveal here as spoilers, I realize that Marvel can continue for many years if it continues to impress and inspire as much as it does here.