Words can't adequately encapsulate how vital Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is at this stage of the comic book movie genre. It's not just our first solo film focusing entirely on a largely-black cast full of strong female characters. It's not just King T'Challa's first adventure, and our first good look at the mysterious African nation of Wakanda. It's not just the final solo outing before Marvel's massive Avengers: Infinity War. Black Panther is all of those things, and so much more. With the weight of its release in mind, many have wondered if Black Panther could deliver on its lofty promises. Luckily, despite some storytelling and technical shortcomings, the film is ultimately a flawed-yet-powerful look at international policy, racial politics, and familial obligations that hits the mark farrr more often than it misses.
Taking place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War (the first Phase 3 film isn't required viewing, but it definitely helps), Black Panther opens on its titular badass (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to the hidden African nation of Wakanda after handing over Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) to the American government. Once home, he must take his newly-deceased father's place as King, continue to defend his land as the mythical Black Panther, reconsider Wakanda's previous isolationist policies towards international conflict, and deal with a growing threat from Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American with an unusually-deep knowledge of Wakandan customs. Along the way, he kicks some serious ass and helps introduce audiences to an entire country and supporting cast that will likely become vital when Thanos (Josh Brolin) eventually strolls into town.
The promise is of Wakanda itself—symbolized in a brief, but powerful flashback to a younger T’Chaka (played in his prime by Atandwa Kani, whose father, John Kani, portrays the older T’Chaka both here and in Civil War) checking in on a covert intelligence mission in the United States. The betrayal is what T’Chaka finds, a revelation that both changes the course of Wakanda’s future and gets at the heart of one of the more difficult ideas Black Panther repeatedly asks: If Wakanda is the mighty beacon of excellence it claims to be, why hasn’t it done more to help the world?
The question rises to the surface of the Royal Family’s minds once again after an encounter with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) inadvertently draws CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) into the Wakandans’ midst. The country’s culture of secrecy and isolationism is an important and fascinating part of its larger mythos, but it’s one that Black Panther purposefully inspects and challenges through the various drives and goals of its characters.
As its newly crowned King, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is deeply vested in hewing to tradition, as his mother and father taught him. But a certain degree of uncertainty about how to embody a king’s identity gives him the opportunity for some flexibility in his approach to shaping Wakanda’s relationship to the world. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who frequently travels beyond Wakanda’s borders and has seen the strife and poverty in the wider world, is adamant that Wakanda could become a larger force for global good. Describing Okoye (Danai Gurira) as simply the general of the Dora Milaje isn’t entirely accurate; she is in almost every sense of the title, Hand to the King, second only to his mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Together, they represent a strong bloc in favor of Wakandan traditionalism—a bloc that would be completely unified were it not for Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s genius, teenaged sister who’s more interested in her scientific research at the Wakandan Design Group than family politics.
Though the Royal Family and those closest to them are not always in agreement with one another, there’s a balance to their nuclear unit which strengthens the Wakandan throne. The stability of the Royal Family ensures the trust and allegiance of the other Wakandan tribes—like the Jabari, a group of anti-technological people who live in the mountainous northern region of the country, where they’re led by M’Baku (Winston Duke). Each of the Wakandan tribes is a distinct cultural presence led by different figureheads who all have their own political agendas.
Wakanda’s inner workings are intricate and at times strained, but the status quo of remaining isolated works specifically because the Wakandans put their own survival first. Given the specter of colonialism on the African continent, that’s understandable. However, the promise of Wakanda introduced during the film’s opening is, in a striking and beautiful way, the audience’s entryway into seeing how someone from the outside might grow to resent the country.
Because Black Panther is actually one of the more grounded and human Marvel films, Erik Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) villainous motivation is immediately understandable and completely relatable. If you knew what he knew, you’d want to fight T’Challa, too. Even in the moments where Killmonger’s ambition to take the Wakandan throne boil over into overt bloodthirstiness, there’s a voice in the back of your head reminding you what brought him to that point, and why maybe he has a point.
In a very literal way, Killmonger is the embodiment of the pain and anguish that comes along with being a black American who is unable to trace their familial roots back more than a few generations. Those gaps in ancestral knowledge are the direct result of families being murdered and wiped from the historical record, never to be fully known or remembered by their descendants. Killmonger’s trauma is something that T’Challa can’t fully grasp, given the nature of his own upbringing. The two become diametrically opposed to one another, despite the fact that they are both fundamentally fighting for the betterment of their shared people.
Killmonger is charming, brutal, intense, and intelligent in all of the ways that you want a bad guy to match an awesome hero like T'Challa. At this point, attention needs to be paid to Michael B. Jordan -- who is easily the standout within the film's stacked cast. When all is said and done, he leaves little room for doubt that Killmonger will go down as one of the MCU's best villains to date.
Of all the players in T’Challa’s orbit, Killmonger is the most extreme in his beliefs that Wakanda should be both open and expansionist. His vision is the all-too-understandable conclusion that dawns on every single black person once we consider everything an open Wakanda could be and mean, not just for the world, but specifically for the African diaspora. Black Panther asks the kinds of questions about Wakanda that aren’t fun to think about, but are important all the same. How might the course of history been changed had the country not been closed off? What might global blackness look and feel like in a world like that? The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a world in which those questions can be asked in earnest and the Wakandan people have to grapple with the possible answers.
Black Panther would not have been as strong a movie if it didn’t contemplate those heavier concepts, but the film also never misses a beat to be absolutely joyous and reverent about Wakanda’s magnificence. Though Wakanda is an Afrofuturist wonderland, it’s still meant to be an actual place on Earth and it feels like it. Director Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison craft breathtaking, on-the-ground shots that give Wakanda’s streets a texture and vibrancy that blends old-world hustle and bustle with gleaming accents of the future.
Alas, arguably the most substantial issue with Black Panther is the fact that its actual execution often fails to live up to the vision backing it up. Make no mistake, this is an absolutely beautiful movie in most respects, but there are several sequences in which the computer-generated effects just don't do the world of Wakanda justice. While most of the film's action (notably a single-take brawl in a casino) is incredible, several of the sequences of T'Challa in the Panther suit feel more like video game cutscenes than sequences from a major Hollywood blockbuster. Beyond that, many of the fight scenes have that ragdoll weightlessness that sometimes bogs down CGI-heavy action sequences. Considering the heavy-handed punches that Ryan Coogler was able to deliver in Creed, this can become something of a letdown. It's not enough to ruin the film, but it serves as a constant reminder that the film industry still has a way to go if it wants its movies to live up to the lofty visions of their directors. Black Panther’s action builds effortless, upward momentum that immediately reminds you that you’re still in a humongous Marvel movie. Thankfully, there’s no big, glowing, CGI deus ex machina waiting as Black Panther’s ultimate big bad, but the film’s penultimate major battle is chock full of just enough explosions to scratch your itch if you’re into that kind of thing.
There’s so much more to say about Black Panther because, like Wakanda, it’s an embarrassment of riches that you can’t really hope to fully unpack in one sitting. It’s the kind of Marvel movie that definitely benefits from more than a single viewing, and it’s one that’ll draw you in.