Black Panther is a movie that, of necessity, means different things to different audiences. As the latest entry in Disney’s expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe, it holds a specific appeal to longtime comic fans and those who’ve been indoctrinated by the films’ famous interwoven continuity across multiple superhero series. In addition, as the first mega-budget superhero picture centered on a black protagonist and a mostly black supporting cast, it serves as the focal point of a specific cultural moment that has amplified its importance and expectations both within and without the superhero genre.
That said, this is a movie that very much meets the importance of its moment head-on. Black Panther is significant for what it is, and significant for what it isn’t. Much as Wonder Woman did last summer, it expands the boundaries of what to expect from this genre while telling a traditional story of classical heroism and eschewing the stereotypes associated with being a “minority” movie. Not only does it shine its spotlight on a hero destined to become an icon and role model for generations of kids of all colors, it also debuts a villain in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger who emerges as one of the most complicated and multi-layered antagonists in the entire Marvel onscreen arsenal.
Before discussing the project itself, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the character’s long history before gracing celluloid. As created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Black Panther (a.k.a. T’Challa, king of the hidden, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda) debuted in the pages of Marvel’s Fantastic Four book in 1966 as the very black superhero (preceding the political party of the same name by a few months). Following that, he quickly became one of the company’s mainstays, eventually joining the Avengers and also headlining several of his own series over the ensuing decades.
Even with that lengthy tenure on the printed page, however, and even with the rapid rise of the Marvel brand as an unstoppable box office force, the notion of the Panther actually making it onto a silver screen in his original form seemed like it might be a bridge too far. A few decades ago, actor Wesley Snipes tried to leverage his accumulated early-’90s clout in service of a Black Panther feature to no avail. (Shed no tears for Wesley though, as his consolation prize was the Marvel adaptation Blade, whose success in 1998 was the company’s first on the big screen, and is pretty much directly responsible for the superhero boom we’re still in the middle of.)
Nonetheless, here we are ten years removed from the first Iron Man and the birth of the MCU, and we see how all the meticulous brick-laying of the last ten years and seventeen movies has led to this particular place in history. As written and directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther isn’t merely the latest volley from Disney’s blockbuster factory. It’s also the kind of confident piece of world-building that can only happen when you’re nested within one of the most successful franchises of all time. It’s also a pretty spectacular riposte to the long-held belief in Hollywood that’s wider “mainstream” audiences simply won’t turn out for films centered on people of color.
In its first two weeks of release, Black Panther has laid waste to a whole coterie of box office records on its way to a staggering $1 billion-plus global haul, which just goes to show that in movies, as with so many other things, it’s the once most loudly proclaiming their certainty who have the least to be certain about. I can’t help but be reminded of the 1997 movie Spawn, also based on a popular comic and also about a black superhero. The difference there is that the producers cast a white actor as one of the comic’s African-American leads and explicitly did so for fear that being seen as a “black film” would kill its box office prospects. (They needn’t have worried, as — rightly — being seen as a “bad film” took care of that.)
Here, Coogler picks up the threads that were helpfully laid out for him with the character’s introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and weaves from them a tapestry of remarkable sophistication and poignancy (well, that it’s sophisticated isn’t all that remarkable given that this is the man who previously brought us Fruitvale Station and Creed). Picking up shortly after the events of Civil War, we join Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) — bearer of the “Black Panther” mantle and possessed of the indestructible suit and super-strength that comes with the gig — as he prepares to ascend to the Wakandan throne following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani).
Wakanda, we’re told, is the world’s lone repository of the mineral Vibranium (a.k.a, the stuff that Captain America’s invincible frisbee is made out of), the result of a meteor strike in the distant past. As a result (and as recounted in helpful opening narration and visually rich animation), the small nation comprised of several tribes has benefited from a technological renaissance unlike any the world has ever seen (laser weapons, magnetic trains, etc.). Hidden behind an advanced cloaking field that’s kept the prying eyes of the world away, the country has also seen the richness of its cultural heritage preserved while slavery and colonialism ravaged the rest of Africa over the centuries.
The picture painted of Wakandan politics is a complicated one, as a longstanding practice of isolationism has protected its culture the expense of turning a blind eye to the suffering of African and African-descended people throughout the world (including Coogler’s own hometown of Oakland, which plays a pivotal role throughout). This is the background against which our primary antagonist, Killmonger, rises up and makes a case for Wakanda taking an altogether different role in the world, one that recognizes the outsized influence it could have given its unmatched, Vibranium-enhanced technological hegemony. And it’s a testament to how well constructed a character he is that his argument is pretty darn compelling even without having to walk in his shoes.
Now, that Killmonger is an out-and-out villain is unquestionable (though I’m not sure what it means that my nine-year-old keeps wandering around the house mumbling, “Killmonger was right…”). In addition to bragging about murdering people all across the world to acquire his unique handle, literally his first act shown onscreen is orchestrating the death of someone who is clearly innocent. Nonetheless, it’s his background that makes him sympathetic, with Wakanda itself shouldering the blame for the route his life took, and placing the burden on the nation’s newly-crowned king as to whether to accept their share of that blame.
This is Jordan’s third time working with Coogler, and his magnetism shines through once again. That said, Boseman is hardly blown off the screen either, occupying the screen with the same confidence he brought to his breakout role as Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42. Both stars are ably abetted by an impressive array of marquee supporting players, including veterans Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, and relative newcomers Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Sterling K. Brown, and Andy Serkis & Martin Freeman (yep, Gollum and Bilbo Baggins).
(Also worth mentioning here is the score by Coogler’s longtime composer Ludwig Goransson, a wonderful tapestry of propulsive “superhero” action motifs bolstered by an assortment of culturally rich thematic material woven in throughout.)
It’s a truly impressive roster of talent that’s worthy of the project’s outsize aspirations. Black Panther exists very much within the Marvel Cinematic Universe framework we’re all familiar with by now, but that’s hardly a ding on it. Quite the contrary, in fact. It’s the methodical legwork of so many filmmakers for the last ten years (under the stewardship of MCU honcho Kevin Feige) that’s allowed us to get a Black Panther film that achieves so much of its potential, one that’s not embarrassed by its comic book origins. It’s a Wakanda that feels as alive and vibrant as the one Jack Kirby first drew lo those many decades ago.
Neither still does it shy away from its cultural roots, going out of its way to depict the hidden nation as a tantalizing “what if” vision of Afrofuturism, of what the continent might have looked had it not been colonized over the centuries. It’s not many superhero epics that steer into nuanced, often uncomfortable discussions about black liberation, but that’s exactly where Coogler goes. And even more impressive is how it feels entirely of a piece with the rest of the production, lending depth and pathos to what could have been yet another explosion-filled, CGI-heavy third act (though there is a bit too much “rubber man” effects work during some of the climactic fight scenes).
So yes, Black Panther blows the doors off so much conventional wisdom about black characters, black films, or films with the word “black” in the title, proving in the end that conventional wisdom isn’t all that conventional after all. But it does all this not merely by bringing the bombast and spectacle (though there is plenty of that), but rather by telling a story that’s unique within the genre, tackling issues of geo and sociopolitics in a way that doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Part political thriller, part palace intrigue, and part superhero epic, Ryan Coogler has made an early-year blockbuster that’s both visually stunning and profoundly personal, and which easily takes a spot among the very best the genre has to offer.