The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been going strong now for a solid ten years, taking iron men and long-haired gods of thunder and turning them into billion-dollar behemoths. After all this time you would think the fun would have worn out: Tony Stark’s jokes would seem stale and lazy; Captain America’s Boy Scout mentality would come off as obnoxious and whiney and; perhaps one too many CGI armies have turned the movies into vapid, unappealing wastelands. Black Panther proves that the key to Marvel’s success has been, and always will be, to invest not in bigger effects but in new characters and new voices.
Our titular hero is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who also takes on the mantle of Black Panther, as others in his royal family have generations before him. Audiences were introduced to this character back in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where he was referred to by Anthony Mackie’s character as a dude who “dresses like a cat.” In his solo movie, he’s given much more depth as a man who is struggling to discover who he is as he takes on the mantle as King of Wakanda. Boseman is subtle, steadfast and charming at T’Challa, combining equal parts humility and swagger.
As great as he in the movie, he can’t but feel out-shined in his own movie by the other breathtaking elements around him, like the nation of Wakanda itself. We’ve seen new worlds in the MCU before through the Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange movies, but Black Panther meshes the futuristic capabilities of the fictional nation with the culture and vibe of the very real, third-world countries that exist. Sure, this movie could show off nothing but the cool gadgets and vehicles that make Elon Musk’s space convertible look like a Hot Wheels toy, but the production team clearly wanted to infuse the movie’s design (by Hannah Beachler), costumes (by Ruth Carter) and weaponry of Wakanda with a sense of cultural identity passed down from generation to generation. It’s thrillingly vibrant and is an approach that can really only be taken in Panther. Other movies may have different dimensions and alien worlds, but only Panther is filled by people of one nation that has gone untouched by colonists hands, able to grow and thrive and form a unique, specific culture.
The technological advancements of this nation play a big part in establishing the conflict in T’Challa. Does he use these developments to help the millions of other people outside their borders, or do they keep their knowledge and culture hidden? Whether to be seen or stay hidden is perhaps the largest theme coursing through Black Panther’s veins, and elevates the movie’s story above other MCU tales to give a real-world relevance for anyone who has questioned their own heritage and their place in the world.
The themes throughout the movie aren’t the only place where innovation is taking place, and the most thrilling advancement this movie possess is in the supporting cast of female characters. For too long women have been put on the backburners to muscular men with mighty weapons, but Black Panther surrounds himself with confident, capable, intelligent, passionate women, like the strong, dedicated Okoye, played with fierce magnetism by Danai Gurira. Then there’s the love of T’Challa’s life, Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, who can swing her circular blades like she was born to it, but her true strength comes from her passion and resiliency, believing Wakanda has a duty to help those in need.
But the true showstopper and scene stealer is T’Challa’s sis Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. Acting as the movie’s Q from the James Bond movies, or Lucius Fox from The Dark Knight trilogy, Shuri supplies Panther, and Wakanda, with high-tech gadgets beyond what our imaginations could create. Between her character’s gadgets and Wright’s absorbing, life-improving energy and charm, Shuri makes Q and Fox look like tired old men whose greatest technological contributions look like those thin sticks kids used to play stickball with during the Depression. All these women deserve their own movie, and they could very well get it.
Together these women and T’Challa take on the movie’s two main threats in Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a weapons dealer, and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a black ops mercenary with a few bones to pick. Serkis is great as the manic Klaue, behaving like a wild, crazed hyena. But this is Killmonger’s show, and Jordan delivers what may be the best MCU villain yet (sorry, Loki). Growing up an exiled Wakandan royal in Oakland, California, it’s in his own personal struggle to find out where he comes from that gives the movie one of its smartest and most timeless angles. Killmonger is a man who has been rejected by his natural homeland, and has seen how his brothers and sisters have been treated in America and around the world, and wishes to use Wakanda’s resources to right the wrongs. This conflict of ideas makes for a fascinating dynamic between T’Challa and Killmonger, and is more worthwhile than their inevitable physical matchup…which, when it comes, is a bit of a disappointment. Yeah, let’s get into that.
Look, I could sing this movie’s praises all the live-long day in regards to all the stupendous production elements, marvelous performances, and enlightening themes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address a fault in the whole viewing experience. As ingeniously-staged and filmed the fight scenes in Coogler’s Creed are, he was not able to transfer that kind of kinetic versatility to Panther. Aside from a thrilling casino sequence in which Coogler moves through the chaos in a (seemingly) single take, the rest of the action pales in comparison. Major fight sequences – especially the final between T’Challa and Killmonger – is clumsy and ham-fisted with visual effects completely taking over, robbed of any potential grace or energy. The final climatic battle between infighting Wakandan factions is more neatly staged but fails to rise above typical Marvel action. What a shame all this is, and it even bums me out the more I think about, given how expertly done everything else in the movie is. If the action had the kind of impact that past efforts like Captain America: The Winter Soldier had we would be talking about a perfect comic book movie here.
Putting aside how my desire for fantastic Marvel action was not entirely satisfied, Black Panther has so much else going on for it that this noticeable fault is only a chink in Black Panther’s otherwise flawless armor. Here we have a Marvel movie that elevates the genre to heights studios have in the past avoided trying to reach. The themes of colonialism, the search for identity, the notions of rejected identity, African culture and Afrofuturism are so prevalent that audiences of all ages can rewatch the movie again and again and find something new to admire, along with the lavish production design. Black Panther is the superhero movie this generation needs so that they can see what happens when you give such a powerful platform to people with something to say but have never gotten a chance to say it, and tell that story in such a beautiful, rich way.