It’s been a decade and 18 movies, but the MCU has finally produced a superhero flick that seems like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book. Ditching the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s familiar roster of heroes together with many of the basics of the Marvel movie formula, Ryan Coogler has turned Black Panther into a highly personal crowd-pleaser in the vein of his last installment, the Rocky sequel Creed, yet with all the idiosyncrasies and thrills afforded by its main setting, the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
There are hiccups in its ambition, but it’s hard not to get swept up in all the technologies, characters, and politics crammed into the movie’s compelling dramatic conflict, which casts the charismatic Michael B. Jordan—the star of Creed and Coogler’s first feature, Fruitvale Station—as the most complex bad guy in the post-Dark Knight cycle of superhero monster hits.
The plot itself stretches from Wakanda’s futuristic Sudano-Sahelian skyscrapers to Coogler’s native Oakland, across multiple dream sequences (all dramatically significant, one quite touching) and backstories.
Black Panther film starts off with an animated prologue that gives explanation for the alternate history of Wakanda, where vast deposits of a fantastical element called “vibranium” gave rise to a scientifically advanced civilization that has hidden itself from outsiders. The people of Wakanda live a century ahead of the rest of the globe, their super-weapons and metropolitan architecture masked by mountains and holograms.
They are many tribes united under one ruler, who protects his people under the form of the high-tech Black Panther. Following what’s left off after Captain America: Civil War, which gave the character his big-screen debut, Black Panther film sees Wakanda’s new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), returning to take on the throne after the death of his father.
Comics have never demanded realism to bring out complicated character arcs or social commentary, and maybe the reason Black Panther seems so much like a real Marvel comic is that the film expresses its ideas with unapologetically clashing color. Black Panther features armored rhinoceroses, Ruritanian power crisis, oddball inventions, dashes of Jules Verne and James Bond, characters who can’t stop striking cool poses with sharp weapons, and a secondary baddie who spends most of his featuring time cackling at his own dastardliness—the one-armed vibranium arm dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a strangely entertaining baddie in an age of humorless Steppenwolfs and Ronan The Accusers. Those portions of Black Panther film are freakily gorgeous, bolstered by the brass fanfare of Ludwig Göransson’s score, which unavoidably evokes the music from Coogler’s beloved Rocky.
But flawless it isn’t. The special effects are unusual, full of fake-looking landscapes and trashy computer generated figures, and what we witness of urban Wakanda is flatly lit and tiny. But while Coogler isn’t cinema’s most sumptuous craftsman, he has an often terrific knack for drama. Coogler adds the speed of Creed’s boxing matches to the lengthy action sequences, bringing a gorgeously entertaining scene where a gun fight in a South Korean underground casino—shown in portion as a linear long take—breaks out into a thrilling car pursuit through city streets. T’Challa is there to capture Klaue, backed by his on-and-off ex-lover, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), a humanitarian who’s dangerous in guns; and by his female bodyguard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the chief of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s stylishly menacing all-female warrior elite. (They’re “Grace-Jones-looking,” in the words of one character.)
T’Challa, a hero in a blazing black suit and claws with no interest in playing well with anyone, made a warm foil to the chummy sitcom dynamics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The man is externally fetching, raised from birth to be a king, but his conflicts are all internal.
In a good move, Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, bring out his personality by playing him against a major cast of supporting characters: his wacky teenage sister, Shuri (played by Letitia Wright); his pal W’Kabi (played by Daniel Kaluuya); M’Baku (played by Winston Duke), the head of the warm, mountain-residing Jabari tribe; Zuri (Forest Whitaker), an elder mystic of Wakandan ancestral ceremonies; the CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman); the aforementioned Nakia and Okoye. Most of these characters hold different opinions about the role of a king (or, in the case of M’Baku, T’Challa’s fitness for the throne), which turns Black Panther into a running conversation.
But the core of the tale comes in the form of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Jordan). A classic enemy from the film’s original source is liberally realized by Coogler and Cole, he is the American offspring of a Wakandan prince—a cocky and ruthless killer who eventually creates a Black Panther suit of his own, his ruthlessness made sympathetic by Jordan’s unexpectedly moving performance.
T’Challa is indecisive (seemingly the destiny of all princes with murdered fathers to avenge), while he is as righteous as Captain Nemo, infuriated by racism, imperialism, war, and all the other things black lives have been through outside the Wakanda’s protection shield. From its opening sequence, the movie establishes betrayal as its central theme, only to flip it back. The nation of Wakanda’s foreign policy is espionage and camouflage, which perhaps makes conspiracy unavoidable. However, there has to be some major points to the fact that most of the characters in Black Panther—a movie in which personal and cultural identity crises drive a pulpy plot—are master secret agents or have secrets to hide or are otherwise literally hidden.
Dora Milaje’s battle cry goes “Wakanda forever!,” heard in a climactic showdown of sonic weapons, force fields, and charging rhinos. But what is Wakanda, anyway? The film doesn’t shy away from the messianic ambiguity of this Afro-futurist Shangri-La, which offers not only the wonders of things to come, but also a complete rewrite of history—a diverse, egalitarian sub-Saharan Africa unaffected by colonialism or the slave trade, completely free from Western influence. As in the comics, the most intriguing things about Wakanda are its contradictions. The Black Panther guards the Wakandan way of life, but the Wakandans themselves are a fiction, disparate tribes (one of which doesn’t even recognize T’Challa’s authority) who have made deception a high technological art. They live in the future and the past, but not the present moment—or at least not a present moment that also includes aliens and superheroes.