Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream American comic books and now, finally, he has his own movie. Do Director-Co-Writer Ryan Coogler and Marvel deliver the studio’s best film yet?
Welcome to the futuristic African nation of Wakanda, where T’Challa, AKA Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is about to take over as king in the wake of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War. The power and technology of Wakanda is built on a core of Vibranium, which is the strongest metal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—it’s also what Captain American’s shield if made of. Wakanda is also a very secretive nation, keeping its true nature hidden from the rest of the world. As T’Challa takes the throne, he is forced to deal with challenges from both inside and outside his nation. The central conflict revolves around a character named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who works with Black Panther villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and may have a hidden connection to T’Challa and Wakanda.
I’ve kept the plot breakdown intentionally light, because there are a lot of moving parts in this film, even though the story itself isn’t overly complicated. While the cast is absolutely fantastic and stocked with exceptional actors, the real star of Black Panther is Wakanda itself and all the details that make up the world that T’Challa inhabits. Wakanda is made up of five different tribes, four of which co-exist in peace and the fifth, the Jabari, which is led by M’Baku (Winston Duke), a rival of T’Challa’s. M’Baku and his people play a key role in the film’s events. There is also the Dora Milaje, an all-female warrior group that serves as security for T’Challa. The main Dora Milaje we meet are General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba), who also appeared in Civil War. The Dora Milaje are formidable warriors and the action scenes featuring them are very well-choreographed and exciting. Okoye’s love is W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who is also T’Challa’s best friend and is in charge of defending Wakanda’s border. Then there is T’Challa’s family. His father, T’Chaka (John Kani, whose real life son, Atandwa, plays the younger incarnation), appears in flashbacks to Civil War and in T’Challa’s visions. His mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), supports her son in his bid to continue his father’s legacy, while his super-genius sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), plays Q to T’Challa’s James Bond, coming up with numerous gadgets to help T’Challa in his efforts to protect Wakanda as Black Panther. Her tech also mines the Vibranium and powers Wakanda. Finally, there is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former lover and a Wakandan War Dog—agents sent out into the world to keep Wakanda abreast of global matters. Also, Martin Freeman reprises his role from Civil War as Everett Ross, who began his comic book career as a U.S. liaison to Wakanda, so expect him to turn up in the inevitable sequels.
That’s a lot of characters to service, but Coogler does an excellent job giving everyone their moment to shine and fleshing out Wakanda to make it feel like a real place. The only character I would argue got the short shrift is W’Kabi, whose actions in the third act did not feel wholly justified to me, especially considering how steeped in tradition Wakanda is. I don’t want to give anything away, but his behavior in the third act is just one of a few issues I had with the film’s third act in general that hindered the film a bit. Third act issues are not uncommon to comic book films, but some of the elements at the end of Black Panther were head-scratchers. The film is long, but I felt that an extra ten to fifteen minutes might have smoothed out the third act problems by giving Coogler more time to iron them out. It looks like he did have those scenes in there, though, because the editing in the final act felt a little choppy with some scenes appearing to end abruptly. A film like this was always destined to be long—that’s the price you pay for such a detailed world that needs to be explained—so I personally wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time in Wakanda. In fact, while Black Panther shares many elements with the previous Marvel films, the film felt refreshingly different. It’s a true family saga and I feel like this is what Marvel was really going for with the first Thor film, but they came up short in that one.
Another element that sets Black Panther apart from other superhero films is its social message. The theme of a technologically advanced nation being completely isolationist is rather relevant in America today, so Black Panther resonates more strongly than, say, Doctor Strange. Also, Black Panther is an excellent vehicle for representation in Hollywood. Yes, Wesley Snipes’ Blade came first in film, but Black Panther features a predominantly black cast, which is huge. I felt the same way watching Black Panther as I did watching last year’s Wonder Woman—proud—proud and happy that films featuring women and people of color are finally getting the budgets and quality they deserve. It’s long past due.
The cast is phenomenal and dynamic. Boseman absolutely owns the role of Black Panther. He’s been great in pretty much everything he’s done starting with his breakout role as Jackie Robinson in 42. He just keeps, pardon the pun, hitting it out of the park. Black Panther is a different character for Marvel to tackle. He’s a man with, literally, the weight of a nation resting on his shoulders, so it’ll be interesting to see how the studio navigates his narrative in the upcoming Avengers films. Whatever his story entails, Boseman is equal to the task. Jordan is great as Killmonger, creating a villain with a sympathetic point of view and I enjoyed his story. He’s a good villain with great motivation, but again, those third act issues crop up and he becomes a little more generic as “crazy evil villain,” and for me, that diminished his impact a bit. Still though, with all the villain problems the MCU has had, Killmonger is miles better than most of the antagonists we’ve met in the last ten years and Jordan is such a fantastic actor, he elevates whatever he’s given just through his performance. Gurira is fantastic as Okoye. After playing Michonne for so many years on The Walking Dead, she definitely has the chops for the action scenes, but it’s her presence that is so commanding here. She is that badass general. I also really enjoyed Nyong’o as Nakia. She is a great foil for T’Challa as he tries to forge his own destiny outside of his father’s legacy. Also, Nyong’o has done so much motion capture work as of late, it was such a pleasure to see her on screen again in the flesh. Forest Whitaker is slowly becoming the new Morgan Freeman. Whenever your film needs some sage gravitas, you can turn to him. He plays Zuri, the Wakandan shaman that mentors T’Challa. Andy Serkis is also a ton of fun as he reprises his role from Age of Ultron. You can tell he was having a ball with the part. However, for me, the two actors that absolutely stole the scenes they were in were Wright and Duke. Wright provides some much-needed levity throughout the film as Shuri. She’s so effervescent, her performance practically pops off the screen. Duke also provides some levity in his scenes, but he also is a formidable foe for T’Challa. I enjoyed his work on Person of Interest as well, and I’m excited for him to have this breakout opportunity, since that show was more of a cult hit. In fact, that goes for the majority of the actors in this film. It’s always exciting when great actors get a very public moment like this to break into the public consciousness. Everyone is so great and Coogler gets fantastic performances from all of them.
Overall, despite its third act issues, I really enjoyed Black Panther. Those little bumps in the road do not diminish the fact that this is an excellent entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and simply a great movie overall. The cast is amazing and the story was refreshing. Definitely see this one.