In the years since Marvel Studios started to perfect and streamline their formula with a confident swagger befitting a franchise ostensibly led by cocky firebrand Tony Stark, they’ve become increasingly adept at mining their material for impressive thematic deposits not often found in popcorn blockbusters. They generally keep their stories on safe rails, though, making their statements about government corruption and superiority complexes from acceptably comfy pedestals, which marks Black Panther as a triumphant leap forward for the company.
Ryan Coogler has taken the character of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), introduced as the successor to the throne of fictional African nation Wakanda in Marvel’s 2016 superhero marathon Captain America: Civil War, and composed both a love letter to the beauty of African cultures and a deeply personal treatise on being black in America. And while this remains a prettily packaged adventure movie aimed at the masses, it never feels like Coogler has allowed that aim to compromise his vision.
Race and power are on the movie’s mind at every moment, from the initial set piece-launching antagonist (a one-armed arms dealer played by a growling Andy Serkis) being one of only a few white faces in the entire movie to the main plot revolving around T’Challa finding he has challengers for the throne. Broadly speaking, Black Panther is about weighing one’s power and determining how that power can and should be distributed.
With that focus, the movie fits neatly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is all about how good and evil use and abuse power, often with the heroes learning tough lessons. But Black Panther also stands on its own, including in its thesis on power a very intelligent and moving examination of how racial injustice looks from the perspective of the victims and what sacrifices they must make to combat it.
Much of this is achieved through the character of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who emerges from the shadows to become T’Challa’s most formidable challenger. Marvel has long struggled to match their engaging heroes with memorable villains, but they’ve recently bettered themselves in that department by focusing on the villain’s personal motivations and giving the antagonist an emotional stake in the story.
Killmonger represents the strongest realization of those efforts yet, someone whose backstory is directly influenced by a powerful character who was or is aligned with the protagonist, just like other Marvel villains seen lately in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, but also whose hopes for the future are built entirely on the movie’s richest thematic material. Killmonger isn’t a raving lunatic and a purely evil obstacle standing in T’Challa’s way. Instead, he actually has something to teach T’Challa, which brings Black Panther into Marvel’s greyest area yet.
Marvel has often made their villains an associate, colleague, or relative of their heroes, but they’ve previously stopped short of suggesting that the villain offers anything more than dark side temptation. With Killmonger, Coogler pushes past that usual stoppage point and explores how a true hero deals with the discovery that not only could their worldview be flawed, but the key to expanding that worldview lies in the heart and mind of their enemy.
It’s a powerful place to go with this story because Killmonger isn’t fighting for some generic goal, but rather challenging the ingrained injustice that defines much of the black experience across America. Black Panther inserts itself into a vital conversation and doesn’t shy away from the tough parts of the discussion, which is rather astonishing for a pricey blockbuster that is expected to include lavish set pieces while paving the way for future Avengers movies. There are a lot of corporate interests that need be served here and yet Coogler has made a blockbuster that feels deeply personal and pertinent to the times we live in.
Achieving the emotional acrobatics that the movie attempts wouldn’t be possible without such a dazzling cast, of course, and Coogler has inherited the perfect leading man in Boseman, who always has the cool composure of a king and yet still finds room to expose his tender side. There’s something uniquely regal about his presence that is beautifully balanced with a naturally exuding warmth. One imagines you could feel compelled to bow before him and then follow it up with a gentle hug.
When he’s in command, there’s a sense of safety that Boseman ensures will never be mistaken for softness. It’s all very believable that this man could convincingly rule a nation while also pushing himself to do better, to do more. T’Challa is the movie’s heart and Wakanda its soul. All the other Wakandan citizens with considerable roles surround the superhero with stunning strength, grace, and intelligence.
T’Challa’s whip-smart teen sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a tech innovator whose dazzling inventions include a remotely controlled car that plays a large part in a thrilling chase sequence. The love interest spot is slyly filled with fiercely independent Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who is fighting to protect Wakanda through her own channels and is never reduced to anything resembling a damsel in distress that requires saving by the male protagonist. Adding muscle to T’Challa’s team is Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda’s all-female special forces group who gets quite the opportunity to show off her skills in a massive third act battle.
There aren’t many Hollywood movies with even one powerful black female character in a big role, so a blockbuster with three of them is undeniably and vitally refreshing. Coogler also adds Angela Basset as T’Challa’s queen mother, so the cast couldn’t get much better. Casting is often a strong suit of Marvel productions, but with even more additions such as Forest Whitaker and Sterling K. Brown, Black Panther feels particularly special in this department.
All of the movie’s visuals, from the faces of its cast to the glittering grandeur and fantastic futurism of T’Challa’s kingdom to the royal vibrancy of a colour palette that favours popping purple, are a magnificent sight to behold. Collectively, they add up to make a superhero movie that fits the Marvel mould while also emerging as something distinctly new.
But for all of the beauty on display, it’s what lies beneath the surface that powers Black Panther so poignantly. The villain wants to improve all black lives beyond Wakanda’s borders and the hero listens. The passionate drive to combat racial injustice flows endlessly through the veins of this massive blockbuster and the sense of pride and optimism that Coogler applies to the effort feels no less than humbly heroic.