A spoiler for Captain America: Civil War – not a massive one – lies ahead.
One of the first images we see in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther – an important distinction that only grows more pronounced as the movie progresses – is of young black teens playing basketball on a makeshift hardcourt in Oakland.
It’s an unapologetically black opening to the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first comic-book based solo movie with a black hero as the titular character in two decades and the first movie of this magnitude to have a predominantly black cast. That unprecedented representation was a guarantee that the movie would be special, but the fact that the film itself is a genuine triumph on almost every level makes it even more significant.
Following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther picks up with a still grieving T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) on the eve of his ascendance to the Wakandan throne. There’s little time for the new King to get settled, however, as he’ll soon have to deal with the re-emergence of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, having a ton of fun being out of mo-cap) – an arms dealer who years ago stole some of Wakanda’s precious Vibranium, the indestructible metal that powers the whole country – and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a mercenary with a mysterious past who has his own designs on Wakanda.
And what a Wakanda it is. Brought to awe-inspiring life by production designer Hannah Beachler, Black Panther’s vision of a technologically advanced African nation untouched by white colonialists is both beautifully rendered and stunningly detailed. Coogler smartly lets us spend a good chunk of the 134 minute run time basking in the country’s traditions and culture –handled with a reverence that made me beam – all the while setting up its central question: should Wakanda remain hidden and keep its vast wealth and knowledge to itself, or should it share its secrets with the world’s black communities, many of whom have struggled for decades?
Jordan’s Killmonger is all for an aggressive version of the latter stance, and though his name is as comic-booky as it gets, the reasons behind his motivations are anything but. It’s ultimately clear why he’s the villain, but the manner in which his argument is presented makes us very sympathetic to his righteous cause as the aforementioned question begets no easy answers. Most impressively, the dialogue boldly goes to places you rarely see any blockbuster go, let alone a Marvel movie. Jordan’s swaggering, menacing performance takes the weighty screenplay up a notch too, and in Boseman – who brings T’Challa’s internal struggles to the forefront with compelling nuance – he has a terrific screen partner to play off of.
Further distinguishing Black Panther is its deep roster of impeccably cast supporting characters. Veterans Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker bring presence and gravitas as Queen Ramonda and Zuri respectively, while Winston Duke’s tribal leader M’Baku brings some unexpected yet very welcome laughs while exuding self-pride.
Still, it’s the trio of Letitia Wright’s Shuri – who steals every scene she’s in with a winning combination of spunky confidence and intelligence – Lupita Nyong’o as the conflicted Wakandan spy Nakia, and Danai Gurira who leave the biggest impression. As Okoye, the General of the Dora Milaje – the Black Panther’s personal guard – Gurira is the standout of every fight sequence, but all the women have a crucial part to play in almost every major action beat.
It’s when the action sequences become flashier – and thereby, more CGI-dependent – that Black Panther runs into a bit of trouble. There are multiple sequences that look like they needed to spend more time with the VFX vendor, and with the rest of the movie being so tactile the lacklustre effects can be pretty jarring. There’s also the odd subplot that could’ve been fleshed out a little more, most notably the relationship between Gurira’s Okoye and Daniel Kaluuya’s vengeful Border Tribe leader W’Kabi.
Those quibbles don’t negate the fact that Black Panther is easily one of the best films in the MCU. From the dark-skinned and non-sexualized kick-ass women to an all-time great comic book movie villain, from Ruth E. Carter’s awards-worthy costume design to a story whose themes you’ll be thinking about long after the credits roll: Coogler and co give us so much of what both general audiences and Marvel fans have been craving without feeling like its merely ticking items off a checklist. And while the film has timely and universal connotations it’s also a film that caters to a black audience, a potent example of the types of films that can be made at this level when a person of colour is behind the lens.
With any luck Black Panther will open the door for other, equally diverse movies to step into the spotlight. For now though, it’s T’Challa’s time to shine. Long may he reign.