The amount of hype surrounding the release of the latest Marvel superhero film has reached levels not seen for blockbuster films in years. So I won’t bury the lede here: Black Panther is definitely worth all the praise it has received so far—and then some.
Much of what makes the film a success can be attributed to a number of factors, including co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, who previously directed Fruitvale Station and Creed. His modus operandi in storytelling has always been to present narratives of the urban black experience with rich, complex characters, so Coogler brings plenty of relevant, timely social justice to this modern blockbuster film. Add to that a stupendous collective of predominantly black talent (Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Michael B. Jordan, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Angela Bassett); wondrous futuristic scenery to build the fictional country of Wakanda, Black Panther’s hidden African nation; supercharged fight sequences; enough high-tech gadgetry to make James Bond jealous; and some good ol’ humor and warmth, and Black Panther feels every bit an elevation of the superhero-film genre and much-needed for these times.
While Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero film to emerge, the character is the first black American comic-book hero, developed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during the intense period of Civil Rights activism in 1966. As an origin story, the film stays faithful to its source material: T’Challa (Boseman) was born to the wealthy ruler of Wakanda, a mythical African nation living off a vast supply of Vibranium, a powerful metal, and high-end alien technology. The young man is set to inherit the throne, as well as the panther suit, after his father is assassinated at a bombing at the Vienna International Centre, as previously depicted in Captain America: Civil War.
After his induction ceremony, where he receives the blessing of rival Wakandan tribes (save for one, the Jabari mountain tribe, whose leader, M’Baku, played by Winston Duke, challenges T’Challa to a duel), the responsibility of the crown weighs heavy on T’Challa as he contemplates the film’s central moral dilemma: continue the Wakandan tradition of ignoring the plight of the rest of the world to protect its resources and safety, or help refugees and other nations in need by sharing its advancements and comforts. T’Challa is torn, but he hears out the opinions of Nakia (Nyong’o), an undercover spy for Wakanda and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, and W’Kabi (Kaluuya), T’Challa’s ally and head of the Border Tribe.
Meanwhile, at a British historical museum, a precious Wakandan relic is stolen from its display by a former black-ops soldier named Erik Killmonger (Jordan). The relic is passed by Erik to a South African arms dealer and gangster, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who plans to auction off the piece to a bidder in South Korea. After a raucous fight sequence in a Busan speakeasy and car chase through South Korea, Erik, as we learn, has more villainy in mind: to pillage the Wakandan supply of Vibranium to arm black people around the world to unleash an all-out race war.
Playing against type, Jordan shows his versatility as the maniacal Erik, whose bloodlust and quest for vengeance has been informed largely by heartache, trauma and a lifetime of racial injustice (and, as we learn later, a heavy familial betrayal). Boseman’s T’Challa has a sense of regality and forthrightness, although his one-on-one fight scenes at times feel a tad overly choreographed.
But Black Panther wouldn’t be as radical or groundbreaking if it weren’t for its excellent treatment of female characters. Nyong’o, whom I’ve longed to see in stronger, mainstream roles, provides as much if not more cunning, toughness and strength as her T’Challa/Black Panther counterpart, and Nakia’s love for humanity and Wakanda give the film an extra layer of depth. Wright, who plays T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri, downplays her high intelligence at first to fulfill her role as the comic relief, until we see her as the engineer behind much of T’Challa’s gadgetry and costumes—although Wright has still the deftness to steal any scene with a simple quip.
And then there’s General Okoye, fearless warrior and main bodyguard for T’Challa. Played by The Walking Dead‘s Gurira, Okoye is a skillful fighter and intrepid leader of the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan king’s private army of women soldiers. To see Okoye, Nakia, Shuri and the Dora Milaje throw themselves valiantly into battle against any manner of weapons feels like a powerful affirmation of gender equality that has been missing in most mainstream films.
While it shouldn’t have taken this long for a Black Panther film to happen, it feels worth the wait to have this team of Coogler, Jordan, Nyong’o, Boseman and others working with the best cinematic technology the 21st century has yet developed. So now that the bar has been raised, Marvel needs to keep the momentum going, with future comic-book characters of color to come, long may they reign.
Black Panther was directed by Ryan Coogler; written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole; and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o.