Long live the king.
Black Panther represents a watershed moment for African-American superheroes and Hollywood: a chance to really redefine what an action hero means to people and how they’re represented in mass media. It has all of the elements that makes any Marvel film a great one. It has passionate performances from its talented cast members. Smart character development that makes our heroes’ choices meaningful and consequential. Not to mention its spectacular action sequences that pretty much guarantees it an Oscar nomination year-in-and-year-out. But what makes Black Panther particularly special is the significance of its diversity; its emboldening of marginalized communities by giving them a platform to say what they’ve been trying to say all of these years. It’s one thing to be simply entertained by a superhero movie. It’s another thing entirely to be impacted by the experience and take it with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. Or in this case, Wakanda.
Taking place after the character’s debut in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther now finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as King of Wakanda, a hidden African nation housing the Earth’s largest deposit of a rare metal called Vibranium. After losing his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and sparing his killer at the end of Civil War, T’Challa believes that the worst is behind him and he can now focus solely on governing his people.
He is sorely mistaken.
For one thing, M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the Jabari tribe are in strong opposition to T’Challa’s rule, and he’s committed to challenging him for the throne at all costs. Weapons smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) rears his ugly head once again, as he has an violent history with Wakanda for constantly stealing plots of Vibranium from them. And a shady assassin who goes by “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) has an eerie obsession with the Black Panther and a hidden agenda he has regarding Wakanda and its people.
Black Panther achieves so much on so many levels that it’s hard to pick where exactly to start. I’ll begin with the writer and director Ryan Coogler, who has achieved ground-breaking strides here both visually and aesthetically for this film. Coogler, who gained attention in his earlier years for helming the biographical picture Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed, creates a technically immaculate world in Wakanda, a highly-advanced society that feels removed and secluded from the rest of the world, but also possesses its own breath and heartbeat in the same sentence. The costumes and makeup evoke the feel and tribalism of the ancient Congo tribes from Africa, a culture which at least partially helped inspire the “Black Panther” comic books, while the production design evokes an Afro-futuristic setting that feels like its evolved years beyond any Western civilization could have in a hundred years. And the action? Spectacular. Whether Black Panther is fighting without his armor in a Wakandan waterfall, or pursuing Klaue through one speeding car to another, the action is fast-paced, enthralling, and engaging. I haven’t felt this excited in a superhero film since The Dark Knight in 2007. Yes, I am saying this with The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War in mind as well.
But it’s not just the production itself that’s so impressive: it’s also the story that Coogler crafts here, a humble fable about a king wanting to do the right thing, but is haunted by the sins of his ancestor’s past. One of my concerns going into this movie was how Coogler was going to handle the race element of the picture. Was he going to ignore it altogether and focus solely on the superhero aspect? Or was he going to put so heavy an emphasis on it that the movie became a social statement instead of an action blockbuster? The answer is neither. Like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Civil War, there are heavy themes underlying the film’s subtext, but it is not what compels the film itself forward. What makes this film a great one is that it is a character drama first, and a social allegory second. The themes of institutional racism and prejudice is as a consequence of the character’s actions throughout the film. It is not the action itself. In making its point humbly, it allows the message to be seen at its most transparently, while at the same time not distracting from all of the superhero spectacle going on.
It would be a crime if I did not mention the film’s outstanding cast. They are the best of any MCU movie so far, hands down. Everyone is so spectacular in their roles, so humane and believable in their interaction with each other that I could dedicate an entire article to talking about each performer individually. I would easily campaign for the film to receive a Screen Actor’s Guild Outstanding Cast nomination, if the SAG Awards didn’t play so much to their bases to begin with.
Boseman, of course, kills it as T’Challa. He was great in Civil War a few years ago, and he’s just as great as he is now. Yet interestingly enough, my favorite characters from the movie are its antagonists, which serve as a sort of remedy to the villain problem Marvel has been facing for a long time now. Duke, for instance, succeeds in playing a dryly charismatic bear in M’Baku, and he’s so boorish that I would love to just give the guy a big hug, were it not that he could crush me in one muscle reflex. Serkis is so wild and over-the-top as Klaue, yet that just makes him all the more fun and fascinating of a character to watch. We usually have the most fun in Marvel movies seeing the heroes and villains duke it out over highly-rendered green screen action sequences. I find it interesting that Serkis was just as fun to watch ranting in an interrogation room as much as he was firing his arm cannon at his enemies.
The best of these performers, however, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Part of what makes his performance so mesmerizing is that you don’t really expect a villainous performance out of the guy to begin with. He was one of the super-powered teenagers in Chronicle, Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in Creed. He’s not really known for playing cruel or malicious characters. Yet, that’s exactly what makes his performance as Killmonger so compelling. It’s the fact that he’s coming from a very human place with it, and his motivations against the Panther make sense and are relatable on a personal level. He is easily one of my favorite villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He would have been number one, if Tom Hiddleston’s Loki didn’t occupy my top spot.
Black Panther is a surprising masterpiece. It’s a stylish action movie, an important social commentary, and a theatrical character drama that hits all of the right notes that it needs to all at once. I’ve given four-star reviews for multiple MCU movies in the past, including Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. I would recommend all of these movies solely based on how fun they were alone. Black Panther is the first to be truly profound outside of its Blockbuster value. It is the bridge where art meets entertainment.
No, Black Panther is not the first black superhero to be adapted to the big screen. That title belongs to Todd McFarlane’s Spawn in 1997. Like the Wakandan king himself, however, it seems destined to become the most significant from a long line of predecessors. And rightfully so.