Ever since Guardians of the Galaxy blew into theaters and made a kajillion dollars Marvel has relaxed their policy on the uniformity of their movies. Sure, there’s still a bit of a formula, but like the Guardians before it, and Ant-Man as well, Black Panther is a Marvel movie that has been allowed to have its own identity, and that’s not entirely because the cast is predominantly black. With a story that feels more akin to Game of Thrones than Iron Man, a more vibrant color palette than the reds and blues that dominates most Marvel flicks, a cast of characters that are more fully-drawn than many of their four-color counterparts, and real-world themes that have resonance after the obligatory post-credits sequence, Black Panther easily finds its way into the upper echelon of superhero flicks, Marvel or otherwise.
Fresh off his intro in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Panther picks up with the titular hero, real name T’Challa (played with heavy grace once again by Chadwick Boseman), as he is crowned King of Wakanda, the technologically advanced and hidden from the rest of the world, African nation. As his father tells him in a mystical vision (it IS still a fantasy movie) T’Challa is a good man, and good men struggle with ruling. He cautions T’Challa to surround himself with smart people. Thankfully, this is taken to heart as Black Panther is the central figure in a crowded group of amazing strong and thoughtful characters, predominantly women. His squad includes Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy and ex-love of T’Challa; Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of T’Challa’s army and noted for being Wakanda’s best warrior (and she proves this in nearly every scene she’s in); Shuri (Leticia Wright), T’Challa’s chief scientist and baby sister; Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his dignified mother; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) as his friend and advisor. As the Wakandans struggle with the idea of making their kingdom’s prosperity known to the rest of the world, they face a greater challenge from the militant Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
Not only is Jordan playing one of the strongest villains in Marvel’s pantheon, really up there with only Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Michael Keaton’s Vulture, but he’s the first antagonist whose motivations make sense, despite the psychotic plan of execution. Jordan is always a refreshing screen presence, and it would be easy to say he steals the whole movie, but he’s matched by Nyong’o, who is easily the only love interest (save for Ant-Man’s Evangeline Lilly) who is playing a strong enough character capable enough of carrying her own movie. Gurira is also particularly delicious, as her action scenes are more fun to watch and carry as much weight as the main character. Winston Duke’s M’Baku is also an energizing force in his brief appearances, injecting humor at just the right moments. Wonderful, albeit brief appearances by Forrest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown and Andy Serkis make this an embarrassment of riches.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who cut his teeth on Creed, the last Rocky film, knows his way around a fight sequence, but the superheroics are balanced by thematic questions that aren’t easily answered in a two-plus hour film, epic though it may be. What is the responsibility of the thriving nation to the African community abroad, especially those struggling without the power or resources of T’Challa and his people. The real-world resonance is never stronger than in one side comment where T’Challa proclaims that real leaders build bridges not walls. Indeed. I’m sure I’m not capable of fully appreciating the nuance that Black Panther offers to the black community in terms of representation, pride, and aspiration, but I appreciate it nonetheless. It’s also, easily, the most feminist of any superhero movie (and I’m including Wonder Woman in that). Sure, the last battle sequence devolves into muddy CGI at times and the Game of Thrones inspiration becomes a little too on the nose, but the strength of the film never wavers.
My Grade – A-