Since Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios has been a hit machine churning out crowd-pleasing pop entertainment. However, for all the wildly successful comic book movies that Marvel has issued over the years, the films stayed the course when it came to the status quo of the white male hero as the unquestioned lead of these films. In the Marvels stable of heroes lied an answer for the demand for a superhero of color with Black Panther, the character created at the height of the Civil Rights Movement by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Having secured the talents of Creed director Ryan Coogler, Black Panther quickly became one of the most anticipated movies of early 2018. That hype was earned as Black Panther is a thrilling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, retaining most of the qualities that fans have come to love about the MCU while crafting a bold new chapter for the future of the sprawling superhero franchise.
After an opening scene in 1992 Oakland, California, Ryan Coogler brings the audience into the history of Wakanda, the fictional African kingdom. A meteorite carrying the extremely rare metal Vibranium which laid the foundation for a thriving futuristic and technological state. Old tribal feuds were set aside following the rise of the Black Panther, the king aided by special plant that provides special powers. As the world gave way to the rise of slavery and the insidious nature of colonialism, Wakanda was able to use its technology to hide from the outside world, establishing an imperfect but just society that was free the horrors that other nations exported over the centuries. The manner in which Black Panther explores the lasting legacy of colonialism on the African continent through superhero fiction makes it one of the most thematically interesting comic book movies ever.
Now that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole pick up the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the Wakandan prince having ascended to the throne following the death of his father. The audience is taken right into the heart of the traditions that have occurred in the fictional land of Wakanda and Coogler does a marvelous job of showing and not telling us the mythology behind the throne in a wild ceremony led by Zuri (Forest Whitaker). Now the undisputed king of Wakanda, T’Challa has been tasked with the apprehension of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer who stole Vibranium decades ago and an attack that killed the parents of T’Challa’s close friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). Klaue, it just so happens, has just teamed with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a mysterious and determined figure with an interest in Vibranium and the history of Wakanda.
T’Challa may be the eponymous hero of Black Panther and he’s truly great hero, but it’s the women of Wakanda that steal the show right out from under Chadwick Boseman. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a Wakandan spy that is also the object of T’Challa’s affection but her desire is to be more proactive in the world than her reclusive homeland. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a teenage genius. Shuri is basically Q to T’Challa’s James Bond, providing him with an array of technology to battle his foes. Even better, the young actress brings such a vibrant energy to her character that it brings a whole new level of life to the film. Leading Wakanda’s army is General Okoye (Danai Gurira), a hardened warrior with steel exterior and a fierce loyalty to her homeland. None of these women are ever damsels in distress and each so integral to the success of T’Challa that it really makes Black Panther a landmark in representation beyond its predominately black cast.
Thematically, going beyond its examination of colonialism and its lingering scars on the continent, Black Panther hits on a number of various topics with deep emotional core. It’s a film about grief, with practically every character, be it hero or villain, having to cope with some form of loss and how they handle loss is what separates them. There are questions of identity that swirl around the minds of the characters and each character has to resolve these issues, and it extends beyond simply the personal and into a further question as to Wakanda’s national identity in whether or not they’ll continue to hide or become a member of the world stage. Whereas most Marvel movies are content to just be pop entertainment, Black Panther kicks it up a notch with thematic depth that makes the action and humor so much more important for the audience. Despite its unique personality, Black Panther is still very much a Marvel movie and never attempts to reinvent the wheel only redefine what’s possible within the MCU.
The early reactions to Black Panther have been a bit hyperbolic. It’s a really good piece of pop entertainment. It may not be a revolutionary piece of filmmaking, but it’s a revolutionary moment in representation on the screen and if you can’t acknowledge that I don’t know what to say to you. Black Panther features the MCU’s most engaging villain since Loki, something that has hampered previous films, and Ryan Coogler makes a film that delivers the thrilling action that boosted by its thematic and political voice that is uncompromising in its celebration of its blackness. Black Panther is a crowd-pleasing work of blockbuster filmmaking that isn’t burdened by a need to establish connections to the rest of the MCU or future sequels, such as this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, giving Coogler the freedom to tell his own story on his own terms and, once again, the young filmmaker delivers.
A wildly entertaining piece of pop entertainment, Black Panther is as fun as most Marvel movies but with a political and thematic depth that the comic studio has never attempted before in a smart, thrilling action flick.