Heading into the release of Black Panther, I made a promise to myself that I was going to try and call the movie straight. Yes, it was a Marvel movie featuring one of its best characters, from a studio that has yet to make a truly bad film. Yes, it was helmed by one of my favorite directors, a distinction he managed to earn after only two movies. Yes, it starred an all-star cast, and yes, it was destined to be a seminal moment in black pop culture the second it was announced. But on the off chance that it fell short in any regard, I wanted to do right by whatever cachet I’d earned as an uncredentialed self-appointed critic and be honest about those flaws.
Yeah… yeah, nah. But for a few nitpicks here and there, that won’t be necessary: this is a damn good movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this now and hie thee hence to your nearest theater.
If you have, hie thee hence back to the theater and see it again; we’ve got box office records to break, people. (Edit: we broke ‘em!)
For the rest of you, here are my thoughts.
Black Panther begins in the aftermath of 2016's Captain America: Civil War, although unlike many Marvel movies, it doesn’t necessitate a prior viewing of any preceding film. All you really need to know is recapped in the opening minutes of this movie: King T’Chaka (John Kani) of the African country of Wakanda is killed in a terrorist attack during a UN summit, and after hunting down those responsible, his firstborn son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to assume the throne. After a bit of pomp and circumstance here and a bit of sturm und drang there, he does and begins deciding the kind of ruler he wants to be, balancing his own instincts and desires against those of his loved ones and advisers. But as T’Challa tries to solidify his rule, he has to contend with elements both within and without Wakanda’s borders that seek to destabilize him and drastically upset the world’s balance of power in the process.
I’ll start with the real star of the movie: the nominally “third-world” Wakanda itself, which looks simply beautiful as a pinnacle of on-screen Afrofuturism. It’s as fantastic as the Thor films’ Asgard and as fascinating any of the Guardians of the Galaxy’s cosmic locales like Knowhere or Xandar, yet for a (sadly) fictitious country, it still feels very real. It’s a sensation helped along by some phenomenal set and costume work that seamlessly blend together modern metropolitanism and traditional African design, and the combination visually pops every second it’s on the screen. Lip plates mesh with three piece suits mesh with holograms mesh with kente cloth: the Academy has always been a bit Heismanny when it comes to comic films , but don’t be surprised if you see this one running away with the statuettes for production and costume design.
And the setting itself calls forth the two characteristics that define Wakanda above all else, stemming from its fathomless stores of vibranium (aka the metal that makes Captain America’s shield so awesome): immense technological prowess that would make Tony Stark cream his designer pants, and a ruthless isolationism that would make the resurgent proponents of Western nativism blush. You know how the catchphrase in American politics these days is America First? Yeah, #InWakanda, it’s Wakanda First, Second, Third, Every Damn Number From Four to Infinity, and then maybe Nigeria If We’ve Got Time, But Only if We’ve Got Time. Much like the other fictitious Marvel countries of Latveria and Genosha, Wakanda is a country that simply wishes to be left alone, earnest in its desire to be neither colonizer nor colony. And much like Latveria and Genosha, it is a country with the strength to punish anyone who would test them.
(Thanos, you’ve been warned, big homie.)
It’s these two characteristics that form the central conflict driving the movie, beyond the standard blockbuster fare of folks punching each other in the face and shit blowing up: as an unabashedly and unapologetically black country with the wealth and might to rival any nation on Earth, and in a world where people of all colors routinely find themselves clutching an ever shorter straw, how can the Wakandans justify their isolationism? And conversely, if Wakanda does step onto the world stage, what role should it play? Should it be martial? Material? With all their power, how much responsibility do Wakanda and her rulers bear towards the outside world, and how much assistance can they reasonably give before opening themselves up to the appetites of a world realizing that there’s a brand new source of wealth to pillage in Africa?
Much has been made about the “political” nature of this movie, from the prominence of the nearly all-black cast to the name of the movie itself (never mind that the character Black Panther, created by two white men no less, predates the party of the same name by a few months). Perhaps in a world such as this one, this movie is inherently political by dint of its very existence, and as such, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s been written off as the worst sort of leftist propaganda in all corners, from the alt-right twitterati to El Rushbo himself.
But in reality, it’s much more of a philosophical film than a political one. It isn’t pushing an agenda so much as it’s raising the questions that might inform the people who develop them. And as anyone who’s ever looked at a Spider-Man comic before will tell you, these are questions that don’t just define statecraft, but the very nature of vigilantism and superheroism themselves. How far can you extend yourself to help others before breaking? Just how much responsibility does great power demand of you? Is it wrong to prioritize yourself and yours over helping strangers, especially if doing so exposes what you love most to danger? As a king, rather than a mere journalist or a student or playboy or soldier or assassin or thief, the implications surrounding T’Challa’s decisions regarding the balancing act of responsibility towards Wakanda as her monarch versus his responsibility towards the world as a socially conscious superhuman are magnified a thousandfold. There are a few moments where things get all-too-real with the social commentary, but for the most part, director Ryan Coogler pointedly avoids giving an answer to the questions he raises, leaving that instead to the perception of his audience, and to the viewpoints of his characters.
And what a motley crew of characters they are! From T’Challa’s tech-savvy genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), to the Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the supporting cast of Black Panther all threaten to steal the movie out from under Boseman’s costumed feet with every scene. Forest Whitaker’s aged mystic Zuri, Angela Bassett’s graceful Queen Mother Ramonda, Daniel Kaluuya’s militaristic adviser W’kabi, Winston Duke’s glowering traditionalist M’Baku (who thankfully is never referred to his unfathomably ridiculous comic moniker of Man-Ape); riches do not come anymore embarrassing in casting. When you manage to get Emmy-winning actor Sterling Brown in your movie for what essentially amounts to a glorified cameo, you are playing with a stacked deck. All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the subtly-named villains of the piece in the gleefully maniacal Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis having the absolute time of his life) and the pained intensity of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), both of whom light up the screen whenever they’re on it. If I had to pick a personal favorite from the cast, it’d be Okoye (Danai Gurira), the no-nonsense general of the all-female Dora Milaje royal guard who stands out as the ultimate badass in a land of badasses. Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason she’s helping lead the charge against Thanos’ forces alongside the Avengers themselves in the Infinity War trailer, and even though it may be at odds with her character’s role, I hope she finds her way into the broader MCU in some capacity.
(Side note: after all the ceaseless bitching online about the supposed racism of a mostly-black cast for a movie set in Africa, the sizable heroic role played by Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross is made all the funnier in hindsight. Not bad for the Tolkien White Guy.)
Jordan’s Killmonger, in particular, is the biggest surprise of the movie, both for the fact that Marvel by their own admission doesn’t do villains especially well in their movies and that the character, well… his name is Killmonger. That’s not a name that tends to lend itself to depth or pathos, and I’d never perceived much of either from his comic counterpart in my limited experience with the source material. But both come across in spades in this performance. As bloodthirsty and sadistic a character as he might be, crossing the line from rogue to outright villain early on, there are more than a few times when he comes across as all-too-relatable, and once the entirety of his backstory is revealed, it’s difficult not to sympathize with him on some level. Killmonger is the film’s primary mechanism of trying to shake Wakanda out of its isolationist stance, and while he leaps off the deep end of extremes in doing so, very much putting the war in “social justice warrior” with much less concern for the social justice part, don’t be surprised if you see a few black audience members nodding along when he explains the motivations behind his actions. In a comparatively short amount of time, Killmonger joins the rarefied air of movie villains like Magneto and Loki in garnering the sympathy of the audience, even as they might long for him to be punched into a very fine paste by the hero.
Honestly, Jordan’s performance as Killmonger lies at the heart of my only significant criticism ofBlack Panther: he’s not in it enough. Owing mostly to a prolonged slow start, the pacing makes it feel as though this was two movies combined into one. The core of this story, a warrior prince looking to secure his throne, is one that’s likely familiar to viewers of all stripes and shades over the years, from Hamlet to Lion King to Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones to Final Fantasy or hell, even to Thor for the Marvel faithful. But this film takes its time hitting the beats of that framework that we all know are coming — almost too much time. While this does work in favor of the overall worldbuilding, letting the setting of Wakanda showcase its splendor and the vast cast of supporting characters establish themselves, it does a disservice to the momentum of the overall story, particularly as it pertains to the villains Klaue and Killmonger.
For all intents and purposes, and without spoiling what causes the pivot, you could neatly divide this movie between the two villains: the first half being a Bond/Mission Impossible style hybrid to thwart Klaue’s trafficking of Wakandan goods, and the second half being a pseudo-Shakespearean drama pitting T’Challa against the would-be usurpation of Killmonger. Either of those story threads could easily carry the full running time of this movie alone, with the other being saved for an inevitable sequel — Serkis and Jordan are that good in their respective villainous turns. This doesn’t do that much of a disservice to Serkis’ Klaue: the hammy greed inspiring his actions will be instantly identifiable to most viewers. But when it comes to Jordan’s Killmonger, that uneven pacing hurts a bit more considering the emotional and historical complexities powering his storyline. As it stands, what you get are two very good halves of a movie, maybe even great ones, but a longing for something that could have been truly legendary.
But if you can get over that, as I swiftly did?
Then you’re left with a movie that boldly and proudly stands among the upper echelon of Marvel films: as it stands, I would only definitively slot Captain America: The Winter Soldier any higher. Maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming, too, and even then I have to acknowledge I’m more than slightly biased because the webhead is my favorite comic character of all-time. As I’ve already gushed, the setting is gorgeous, and from Boseman all the way down, the performances are strong. While downplayed, the fight scenes crackle with an intensity rivaling anything in the MCU, and despite some very wonky CGI in the final battle (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it), the technological wizardry of Wakanda is showcased as neatly behind the camera as it is on it; I can’t wait for Shuri and Tony Stark to get their heads together someday. Between Ludwig Göransson’s score and Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack, the music is phenomenal, if less bombastic than previous Marvel fare. It’s funny when it can be, dramatic where it has to be, and for a movie that easily could have been a cookie cutter placeholder to tide the masses over until the next Avengers team-up, emotionally stirring when you might least expect it. As with Fruitvale Station and Creed before this, director Ryan Coogler hasn’t made something that’s particularly shocking or surprising by the standards of the genre he’s working within, but what he has made is something that’s just plain good. It’s something that fills the mold of existing stories as well as anything else before and leaves you wondering the possibilities of what lies ahead for T’Challa and the Wakandans once the clusterfuzzle of Infinity War is finished, especially given the events in the ending of this movie.
Black Panther is a film that is at once timely and timeless, both fresh and familiar. It’s a movie that asks what might have been in a world where blackness was never commodified or criminalized, and what might yet be in a world where it is no longer. It serves as a love letter to children of Africa and the African diaspora all the world over, a fact that I can’t imagine is lost on the countless kids who’ll see it this weekend. It is a damn fine superhero movie, and one more than fit for a king.
And on that note, I’m off to go watch it again. Peace, y’all.