Even though it hasn’t been out for long, “Black Panther” already feels like one of the absolute best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The titular character is not the first Black superhero to receive his own movie, but “Black Panther” is easily the first Black superhero movie. It dives deep into the idea that past events can leave ripples that are felt for years to come — the scars of interpersonal betrayal, or the longer, more painful legacy of the African diaspora. It also dares to imagine a hopeful future for the people who struggle with these consequences. It leans into its Blackness, celebrating tradition while at the same time projecting an Afrofuturist fantasy.
The movie begins with a beautiful animation sequence: Long ago, a meteorite made of vibranium (an imaginary metal) crashed into the African plains, transforming the land around it and sparking a war between five tribes. These tribes later united around the Black Panther, a warrior who gained special powers by consuming the mystical heart-shaped herb, and formed the nation of Wakanda. Seeing the devastation that colonialism was wreaking on their continent, the Wakandans chose to conceal themselves from the rest of the world. While in hiding, the Wakandans used vibranium to create technologies centuries before their time, becoming the most advanced nation on Earth.
Picking up days after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to be crowned king and to assume the mantle of the Black Panther. Despite the support of his ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), T’Challa struggles with his new responsibilities, including facilitating Wakanda’s transition into the world and apprehending the elusive arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). But when an unforeseen enemy with ties to T’Challa emerges, the new king must become the superhero he was meant to be in order to prevent a world war.
“Black Panther” is the 18th film in the MCU, but it succeeds spectacularly on so many levels because it feels like it was given the chance to be its own movie. T’Challa, Klaue and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) have all been introduced in previous movies, but you don’t lose any necessary backstory if, like me, you’ve checked out of the MCU for a while, or even if you never checked in to begin with. Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler commands a truly top-flight assembly of some of the finest Black actors in Hollywood. Boseman brings a reserved dignity to the titular role, but it’s the supporting cast who really shines. Nyong’o imbues Nakia with warmth and humor, while Gurira is as brutal with a one-liner as she is with a spear; it’s fun to watch them kick ass in combat. Better still is Wright’s star-making turn as Shuri, both the smartest person in the room (any room) and the funniest. (Trust me, I’d be doing you a disservice by spoiling any of her best lines, which had everyone in the audience laughing.) And Michael B. Jordan…oh, man, more on him in a second.
For years, naysayers have sniped at the “Marvel formula,” and they’ve largely been right: The MCU has been often been plagued by forgettable music, muted direction and bland villains. “Black Panther” meets all three of these criticisms head-on. “Black Panther” has two great musical accompaniments, the more notable being the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack, which weaves in and out of the film. (I’m here to review the film, but the soundtrack, which features SZA and The Weeknd alongside South African musicians like Yugen Blakrok and Sjava, is a worthy companion to the movie.) The film’s original score, composed by Ludwig Göransson (best known for his work with Childish Gambino), beautifully melds brass and African percussion. While Marvel will never let their directors have complete control over their films, it seems to have been loosening the reins lately, and with Coogler, they take another step in the right…well, direction. Coogler’s writing admirably balances world-building with character development, and he’s an assured director who knows how to coax dramatic, empathetic performances out of his cast. Marvel would do well to invite him back for the inevitable sequel.
Jordan has been the protagonist in Coogler’s other two films (“Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” — and he’ll be in Coogler’s coming fourth), but “Black Panther” give him the chance to play the antagonist, and he crushes it. As Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, Jordan gives us a villain who’s not just one of the best in the MCU, but one who’s even more compelling than the hero. (I’ve read other reviewers compare “Black Panther” to Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, and Jordan’s performance is the reason why.) From the moment we meet him to his final words, Jordan steals every scene he’s in. I don’t want to give too much away, but his motivations are more complex than world domination; he’s hateful and violent, but his hatred comes from a place of pain, and his thirst for violence—dare I say it—is almost justifiable.
But the best character might be Wakanda itself. Wakanda isn’t the first mythical locale that Marvel has invented, but it’s far and away the most captivatingly rendered. Whereas Asgard in the “Thor” franchise and the various alien worlds of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies feel merely like computer-generated settings, Wakanda feels as authentic as a fictional country can. The design team put work into grounding Wakanda’s culture in African culture; it’s an Afrofuturist dream that balances reflection on the past with a bold vision of the future. Everything about Wakanda—from the language to the costumes to the architecture—demonstrates a deep reverence for the cultures that inspired its creation.
Still, “Black Panther” can’t completely break from the Marvel formula, which keeps it from being a flawless movie. The action sequences are a little underwhelming; either the editing is too quick or the CGI is overdone. (That said, the car chase scene through the streets of Busan is a wild ride that ranks among Marvel’s best.) And while none of the cast feels wasted, one would hope that Bassett’s character, as well as Daniel Kaluuya’s and Winston Duke’s, have a little more to do the next time we meet them. But when “Black Panther” hits its beats, dramatic or musical, it sweeps you up in its rush. “Black Panther” is the first superhero movie in a long time that captures the thrill of reading a comic book—those feelings of geeky joy and wonder, and for the readers who see themselves in its hero, a sense of pride. Wakanda forever!
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.