Marvel’s Black Panther presents a lush fully-realized world and a number of the typical Marvel scripting problems. But even within some of those conventions, the film makes some powerful statements. Co-written and directed by Creed‘s Ryan Coogler, the film ruminates on isolationism, interventionism and the ability of good people to lead. It also has some spectacular fight sequences and a number of scene stealing performances by actors like Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and Angel Bassett. And it further deepens the Marvel cinematic world with its exploration of Wakanda as a country which resisted European exploitation and then asks the cost of not getting involved.
And since many of Black Panther‘s great joys lay in that subtext, some spoilers will follow.
Set days after Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assume the Wakandan throne and the responsibilities attached to it. After a sequence of “ceremonial combat” to prove his worth, he goes through an interior ritual in order to speak to his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and truly become king. While somewhat disconnected from the plot of the film, the coronation rituals are an important element of the film as T’Chaka imparts an important message which gives the following hour-and-change context: a good person walks a very difficult path if they choose to be a leader.
The main plot begins when Wakandan War Dogs — spies embedded all over the world to keep tabs on its progress — learn that Ulyssese Klaue (Andy Serkis) has emerged from years in hiding with a new supply of vibranium to sell. Klaue previously stole a supply of the metal in 1992 and is the only outsider to see the reality of Wakanda as a highly advanced civilization. T’Challa, along with War Dog Nakia (Nyong’o) and Dora Milaje soldier Okoye (Gurira), sets out to recover the vibranium and capture Claue.
But little do they know that Claue is working with Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-CIA operative known as Killmonger, whose personal experience and long years of destabilizing nations for the American government has brought him to take on Wakanda during its time of transition. And though Killmonger is barely in the film, his presence is at the very heart of the philosophical conflict within the it.
From the moment T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye return to Wakanda for his coronation, the film treats viewers to a glorious African paradise. The fact Wakanda is a place Europeans never found and exploited cannot be overstated. The country is filled with a rich history and culture Coogler explores in the run-up to T’Challa’s ritual combat, but even then only hints at its history with the notion of the five tribes and a sixth outsider tribe lead by the scene-stealing M’Baku (Winston Duke). And while the time spent on T’Challa’s ascension to king may seem to slow down the pace of the film, it is absolutely vital to build Wakanda up as it is a singular place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and modern tent-pole Hollywood film making. It also makes the film’s key theme stronger when you realize Wakanda is this way at the expense of Africans nations which faced the terror of European exploitation: a point Killmonger expresses even if his methods are highly questionable.
Nakia also questions the isolationist stance of her country. While T’Challa is happy to remain apart from the world because it is “our way,” she has seen the strife and devastation out in the world. And in an interesting twist for Marvel’s usual take on romance, this difference of opinion keeps the two characters apart despite the fact they clearly love each other. That the romantic thread and the main plot are in sync is truly remarkable.
Also remarkable is the number of actors who steal the movie from the title character. Nyong’o and Gurira are the real stars of the Korean chase scene teased in trailers. The movie lights up every time Letitia Wright appears on screen as T’Challa’s armorer and sister Shuri. Basset is also sublime as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother. Sterling K. Brown has the power to bring audiences to tears in his key scene. Meanwhile, Boseman serves as an amazing anchor to all those around him. And while the story forces him into a stoic place for much of the film, small delights like his interactions with Shuri and his obvious affection for Nakia hint at the wonderful human being hidden under the mantle of leadership.
But as I mentioned up top, the movie does feature a few Marvel scripting issues. One of which occurs in the final confrontation; in which Black Panther faces a very familiar foe. It is a recurring element of Marvel films back to the first Iron Man and it is, at least as the fight is happening, the weakest element of the film precisely because it is just so damned familiar. That sense of sameness is ultimately mitigated during a powerful resolution backed by Jordan’s stunning performance and the most haunting and devastating line of dialogue you will hear in a major motion picture all year.
Even with its familiar strands, Black Panther imagines a unique world within Marvel’s universe. It’s funny, deep, occasionally unsettling and extremely thoughtful. It may not be the hero’s journey you’d expect from the first film in a Marvel hero series, but it is definitely satisfying.