Of the origin sagas that have come to populate so many of the 18 theatrical releases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, Black Panther might open with the most arresting introduction of them all. Gazing at the sky, a young boy asks to be told the story of his ancestors. As formed by sculpted swells of sand, his father walks him through the history of Wakanda. The secretive African nation began with a pact forged by five tribes, which eventually gave into infighting and power struggles, and in one tribe’s case, exile in the Wakandan mountains. But after witnessing the history of man’s violence against man, repeated time and again, Wakanda resolved to shield its supreme technological innovations and ideal society from the world, to protect its own people by shielding them from humankind’s folly.
Early and often, Black Panther returns to the question of whether that self-imposed code of withdrawal was the right thing to do, or not, or whether one can definitively say in either direction. Audiences will likely find themselves torn on this matter, but they’ll all agree on one simpler point: it’s a terrific superhero movie. That stylish introduction is immediately followed by a flashback to Oakland in 1992, where a Wakandan spy embedded in American society is caught trading arms made of Vibranium, the meteoric ore on which Wakanda built its superior new world. The man argues for the necessity of opening Wakandan knowledge and resources to the many suffering around the planet. The chieftain of Wakanda, known as the Black Panther, does what he feels he must. And the consequences ripple through the years to come.
Where so many Marvel introductions to date have concerned themselves with dishing out every familiar and/or accessible character traits to satisfy fans and engage the uninitiated, Black Panther is one of the only such films to truly distinguish itself as its own unique entity. Director Ryan Coogler and his sprawling cast accomplish this in a number of ways, both familiar and uncommonly ambitious, and the aforementioned introduction cements one of the film’s most successful approaches: the cultural, tonal, and stylistic specificity used to bring not only the Panther to life, but the world that created and molded him into the man he is when the film begins.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have plenty to learn. Black Panther picks up directly after the events of Civil War, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) preparing to lay his assassinated father T’Chaka (John Kani) to rest and assume the Wakandan throne as the heir apparent to the Panther by blood. Coogler lingers over the fine details of the ritual induction at length, from the vivid all-tribal procession downriver to the feat of ritual combat, in which the candidate for the king must answer any challenger from any tribe who wishes to fight for the throne. To do this, the candidate must be drained of the Panther’s power, derived from the Wakandan Earth, and it’s merely the first in an escalating series of sequences in which the outer limits of T’Challa’s mental and physical fortitude are tested. When he undergoes the final moment, in which his power is restored and he’s sent to commune on the ancestral plane, he tells T’Chaka that he’s not yet ready to live without his father. But there’s no time for doubt. There are choices to be made about the Wakandan future.
The MCU has frequently flirted with the realities of the broader world, from political paranoia (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) to the American legacy of arming perilous nations (Iron Man) to even the complex legacies of colonial histories and the violence which so often accompanies them (Thor: Ragnarok). Yet Black Panther might be the first installment which fully couches its story and its characters alike in real-world dynamics and the complex (and possibly unanswerable) questions that go along with those. T’Challa is as well-prepared a king as any man could ever be, but he struggles with his own doubts. His compatriot Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) admonishes T’Challa that he and Wakanda can do more, that its endless wealth of renewable resources carries with it the responsibility to use that naturally gifted power for the greater good. Yet discontent is bred. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), the chief of a rural tribe, has far more interest in raising swords to protect Wakanda than in accepting outsiders and “their problems.” T’Challa must continue to witness the suffering of those beyond Wakanda, and wrestle with the moral dilemma they present.
And then there’s Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a terrorist with a surprising wealth of knowledge about Wakanda for an outsider. With the help of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a South African black market smuggler, Killmonger plans to carry out a shadowy agenda against T’Challa and all of Wakanda, one that threatens the nation’s way of life for good. Needless to say, Black Panther has more than a bit going on at any given time, but Coogler manages to firmly root even the film’s most bombastic moments in memorable strokes of character-driven storytelling. Killmonger may be mad with anger, but his volatility comes from painful places, ones which Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s mostly well-tuned screenplay is hardly afraid to explore. He’s one of Marvel’s most complicated villains to date, and like many of the other bests (Bucky Barnes, Vulture), it’s based in a sense of frailly human truth. For Killmonger, Wakanda’s duty is to reclaim power from those who he sees as having abused it, by any violent means necessary.
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For T’Challa, the question is harder to answer, and Boseman firmly carries the film as a presence of endlessly uncertain strength. Wisely,. neither he nor the film waste any time pretending that T’Challa is like other Marvel heroes. He’s the son of a king, bred from birth to one day become king himself. But to be the king is a very different thing altogether; as he’s advised at one point early on, “it is hard for a good man to become king.” It’s substantially harder to reconcile the idea that good men can still do unforgivable things, and that evil men can be correct, even if that clarity exists through a prism of hurt and outrage. These are weighty concepts, and Black Panther addresses them with uncommon depth and nuance, while restraining itself from the urge to attempt to offer answers where it cannot.
Returning to the concept of ambition, it can be found just about anywhere you look or listen throughout the film’s 140 minutes. Coogler stages the film’s obligatory globe-trotting action setpieces with vigor; an extended, multi-pronged battle through Busan fuses the great movie car chases of yore with a handful of tech-fueled treats, sending old and new modes of action careening through the neon-lit sreets at a breathless clip. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, a current Oscar nominee for her work on Mudbound, visualizes the film’s many lavish vistas with an eye for grandeur. The ancestral plain is framed with hues of faded, ethereal magic hour purples and pastels, a Busan gambling parlor is draped in smoky, sensual reds, and even the lab in which T’Challa’s scientist/inventor sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) works is a marvel (pun inadvertent) of modernist design. There’s rarely a frame of the film that Coogler doesn’t manage to sneak a bit of hyper-stylized eye candy into, and it helps to distinguish the film’s gauntlet of busy storytelling.
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Sure, Black Panther still features so many hallmarks of the MCU movie that naysayers will find things to nitpick. It still descends into a fugue of grand-scale action, even as it manages to anchor much of that action in character. Given that it boasts one of the more ambitious MCU casts to date, the performances elevate characters that are often left to establish themselves on the run. Danai Gurira is particularly notable in this regard; as the general Okoye, she establishes herself as one of the film’s most magnetic presences in every one of her key moments. Angela Bassett brings gravitas to T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, even as she’s too often a secondary presence onscreen (as much as a performer of Bassett’s ferocity can ever be secondary, anyhow). There’s talent in every corner of the film, and it elevates Black Panther beyond so many of its superhero contemporaries even as it exhibits some formulaic tendencies.
It’s a sterling example of formula done exceedingly well, however, particularly in the ways it uses the familiarity of that formula to tell a new kind of story. It appears in small strokes, particularly in a breathtaking sequence that fuses the ancestral plain with the modern world, redefining which citizen legacies we honor and and canonize and make universal along the way. It’s a superhero story that wrestles with tradition while also paying steady homage to it, and pushes back against so many films which reduce cultural identities to side traits. Here Coogler makes no distinction between cultural identity and superhero lore, turning the former into the latter in ways accessible enough to reach a broader audience but distinctive enough to likely speak to one that Hollywood leaves in the periphery far too often. Anybody who finds the film’s lore unfamiliar is likely just uninitiated to how so much of the rest of the present world lives.
There’s going to be a great deal written in the months and years to come about Black Panther, a great deal of it by people far more qualified to comment on the black diaspora than this writer, but it’s a Marvel movie that also becomes more than just a Marvel movie by embracing the heritage of its source material and characters alike. And that goes well beyond the surface level, beyond the Kendrick Lamar-flecked soundtrack and the nearly all-black cast. That extends into the emotional center of the movie, the thing that every Marvel hit to date has used to appeal to the audience in one way or another. It’s a movie that knows the things we’ve done to get where we are now, and the things we must do to guarantee the future. Black Panther is an invigoration of a genre that’s become a theatrical mainstay for a substantial period of time now, and it’s probably going to make superstars of so many of its dynamic actors. But most of all, it’s going to be a superhero movie for a lot of people, young and old, who’ve looked to see themselves onscreen for a long time. And like the best stories of heroes beyond our own powers, it’ll give audiences the world over somebody new to look to in times of great peril.