Ryan Coogler’s Afrofuturist take on the Marvel Universe is a refreshingly unique, stylish and thematically rich superhero flick, breathing fresh air into the Marvel mythos.
What can I say that hasn’t been said a million times over already by critics more numerous and qualified than I? More than just a crystallization of the political moment, Black Panther is a solid, if far from perfect, superhero film, a Marvel flick with a muscular political backbone and a clear sense of its own identity. It’s not the Perfect Film people are claiming it to be, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for blockbuster filmmaking.
Following the events of Civil War, where we were first introduced to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the isolationist African country of Wakanda and the latest to take the ancestral mantle of the country’s vibranium-coated protector, Black Panther sees T’Challa take his birthright as king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). However, he inherits more than the kingdom; he takes on all its problems too, including a shaky debate about whether or not Wakanda should share its advancements with the world to make it a better place, or keep to themselves. Meanwhile, the sins of Wakanda’s past come to haunt it in the form of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American-born Wakandan returning to seek the throne by any means necessary.
While Boseman is the title character, Coogler lets his incredible cast of both veterans (Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o) and newcomers (Letitia Wright, Winston Duke) shine as the scope of Black Panther extends beyond who our superhero will punch next. Don’t get me wrong, Boseman’s fantastic in the title role, imbuing his character, so dour in his first appearance, with a hint of humor that makes him a leader anyone worth his salt would follow. But there are long stretches where we’re left with Black Panther’s entourage to save the day. Not that that’s a complaint, between electric, dynamic characters like Danai Gurira’s badass right-hand woman Okoye, or Letitia Wright’s bubbly Q to T’Challa’s James Bond. It’s really the story of a nation fighting for its identity and a direction for its future, and all its varied citizens get a role in deciding it.
More than just a Marvel action beat-em-up, the film weaves in messages, overt and subtle, that strike contemporary cultural nerves. The debate regarding Wakanda’s place on the world stage resonates with an increasingly isolationist political climate in America, while Killmonger’s understandable motivations touch on justifiable rage at systemic and historic racism against black people since the days of slavery. Wakanda’s insulation from the horrors of systemic black injustice give its people blinders against the suffering of others outside its borders, giving reason for Killmonger’s madness. Amongst the slick costumes and inventive gadgets, Black Panther takes the time to talk about restorative justice and the extent to which we seek it, giving it a bigger brain – and heart – than a lot of other entries in the franchise.
Black Panther juggles a lot of genres in its two-plus hour runtime (blaxploitation, Afrofuturism, James Bond spy thriller, Shakespearean family drama) and never skips a beat. Ryan Coogler directs this thing like he’s been preparing for it his whole life, and it’s just more proof of Marvel’s success with taking indie directors and letting them play in the big MCU sandbox. It’s also one of the most gorgeous, impeccably designed Marvel movies this year, with brilliant, eye-popping and distinct Afrofuturist costume and production designs startlingly lit by Rachel Morrison (the first woman, and woman of color, nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for Mudbound). There are some niggling pacing issues to be sure, and some of the action is a little underwhelming, but these are minor concerns.
I’m really trying to minimize my gushing over Black Panther’s Importance in the Zeitgeist right now, lest I be yet another ‘woke white film critic’ misguidedly blustering through assertions of Black Panther’s significance. But to deny the film’s cultural impact would be just as dangerous, so I’ll just say this: I’d be extremely happy to see more films like Black Panther out there, and its success should be proof positive that Hollywood should take more chances with black-led casts and people of color behind the camera.
Black Panther prowls into theaters Friday, February 16th.