There are many things that separate Black Panther from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that go far beyond the skin color of its protagonist. For the first time in the MCU, we have a film that is primarily about cultural identity and the responsibility that goes along with it in a real, demonstrable way (sorry Asgard, but you don’t count). We have a film whose conflict is far more internal than it is external, with history itself on the battlefield. We have a film that highlights so many powerful women that it shames the entire run of the male-dominated MCU. We have a film that sticks to the MCU’s solid formula while boldly expanding the very meaning of that formula at the same time.
Opening only a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman) is about to become king after the death of his father. Also known as the Black Panther, T’Challa is the defender of his homeland from the outside world. Thanks to a massive stockpile of the super-metal vibranium, Wakanda is an amazingly-advanced civilization that hides itself from the world to protect its secrets and technology. Wakanda’s isolation is threatened, however, with the arrival of Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a trained killer with ties to Wakanda who wishes to usurp the throne and use vibranium technology to spark a global war.
The action narrative of Black Panther in that paragraph doesn’t even begin to hint at the true nature of the story, however. Killmonger also brings with him buried secrets that strike at the very heart of Wakandan identity and history, and its these that prove to be his most powerful weapons. While there is plenty of conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa in a very basic duke-it-out, fist-slam kind of way, the most powerful battles in the film are fought with ideas, memories, and intent.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s focus on that helps Black Panther stand above the majority of the MCU, even during its weaker moments. (And there are a few that we’ll get to in a bit.) While the MCU has focused on concepts like the meaning of heroism and the great responsibility that it brings, in Black Panther, Coogler approaches the subject with an ambition and scope that’s as exhilarating as his vibrant, rainbow-colored viewscapes. This is not just about what one hero can do for the world but about the impact that an entire culture can have on humanity. It’s about how the past informs the future in a very holistic, far-reaching way.
The film’s most compelling element is how this debate plays out differently among the many complex, dynamic characters in the film. There are very few characters that are complete heroes or complete villains, and nearly every character visibly evolves over the course of the story. Wakanda’s isolationism is both justified and selfish in equal measures. Even our hero believes that sharing his country’s super-tech will lead to exploitation and suffering for his people, and given the history of how other nations have treated Africa, that’s a very valid concern. But over the course of the story that argument shifts and twists and mutates so much that it becomes something else entirely, a question not just of basic needs or the lessons of history but of sovereign responsibility.
This is demonstrated most beautifully in the interactions between T’Challa and Killmonger, both of whom are guilty of doing the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons in equal measures. T’Challa’s adherence to Wakandan tradition prevents him from truly seeing the larger picture and being the hero he needs to be, while Killmonger’s anger and sense of vengeance color and destabilize his otherwise very valid and sympathetic motivations. In a sense, both are antiheroes of a kind, neither one adhering to the traditional protagonist and antagonist templates established by Marvel in its comics and cinematic output.
Both Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan give amazing performances that more than honor the characters and Coogler’s vision. In Civil War, Boseman was a refreshing addition, a dose of stoic nobility in a cast made up of wisecrackers and rogues. Here, Boseman’s allowed to give T’Challa an incredible amount of depth and humanity, showing a vulnerability that was only briefly hinted at before. He’s as graceful and ferocious as he was in his previous appearance, but he’s so much more completely human here. Jordan’s turn as Killmonger is a sharp contrast, all vicious swagger and charismatic rage. Jordan’s physical presence is incredibly imposing compared to Boseman’s more subdued strength, and he owns every scene and line of dialogue he has with frightening confidence.
What also sets this film apart, however, is the remarkable supporting cast of strong, confident, independent female characters. Lupita Nyong’o makes a seamless transition to action heroine as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex and a spy for Wakanda who advocates global outreach. Danai Gurira’s Okoye is the most powerful warrior around who isn’t wearing a vibranium-laced panther suit. Letitia Wright’s Shuri is both princess of Wakanda and a tech-genius whose inventions make Stark Industries look like Tinker Toys.
All three of these women are marvels to behold on screen, all capable of headlining their own film, all strong in remarkably different ways. They are the heart, the hand, and the mind that help guide not only T’Challa but the film in general. Nyong’o is amazingly appealing and quietly confident, Gurira is a level of fierce that can only be classified as Epic Grace Jones, and Wright is a whip-smart snarker whose chemistry with Boseman is off the charts. To top it all off, Angela Bassett lends an effortless but incalculable level of majesty as Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda. Never before in the MCU, or even in superhero films at all, has there been this level of undeniable, unquestionable female power.
The only times the film truly falters is in the structure and pacing. The first act has a shaky and jumpy start, and while it does eventually find its groove, it takes a while to get there. While the script is overall very solid, it has more than a few weak moments (again, mostly in the first act) that could have desperately used a shake-up or a tightening. In addition, the plot twists in the narrative are imminently predictable in an almost satirical way. Absolutely nothing that happens in the last act should come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen even one action film in the last 15 years.
A lot of this can be easily forgiven, however, as the film’s overall drive and boldness work overtime to ease and erase any doubt. Coogler’s vision is as broad and colorful as any film in the MCU before it but possessed of an undeniable warmth and organicity. With vibrant set pieces and wild battles, it has all the hallmarks of the best of the MCU. But with its focus on complex issues and even more complex characters, it transcends the boundaries of the typical comic book film. It’s not just a leap forward for representation of people of color or women in the superhero genre; it could be a leap forward for the genre as a whole.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+