Throughout the history of its cinematic universe, Marvel Studios has excelled at creating engaging, entertaining diversions, bringing dozens of characters to life in a string of blockbusters that feed into one another, like a cinematic perpetual-motion machine. What it hasn’t done is make movies that feel consequential. Sure, there was some commentary about war profiteering early on in the Iron Man films, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier glanced upon the idea of selling out privacy and freedom in the name of security. But more often than not, the studio’s films are primarily concerned with keeping all the narrative plates spinning on the long march toward the Thanos showdown that will finally start in Avengers: Infinity War.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is different. Not only is it a long-overdue embrace of diversity and representation, it’s a film that actually has something to say — and it’s able to do so without stepping away from the superhero dynamics that make the larger franchise work. It’s gripping, funny, and full of spectacle, but it also feels like a turning point, one where the studio has finally recognized that its movies can be about more than just selling the next installment. In the process, the studio has ended up with one of the most enthralling entries in its entire universe.
Black Panther picks up in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, where audiences were first introduced to Chadwick Boseman’s Prince T’Challa and his superhero alter ego Black Panther. In the wake of his father’s death, T’Challa returns home to the country of Wakanda, where he will take his father’s place as king. Wakanda is a mystery to the outside world. It’s an incredibly advanced country filled with fantastic technological wizardry, but those advancements come courtesy of vibranium, a rare ore found almost exclusively in Wakanda. In order to protect its massive store of the substance, Wakanda has pretended to be a primitive nation throughout its history, hiding its advancements from the rest of the world with the aid of a force field.
But notorious arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) knows the country’s secrets and has secured some vibranium that he intends to sell. Working with him is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, also the star of Coogler’s films Fruitvale Station and Creed), a former US military operative who seems to know quite a bit about Wakandan culture himself. T’Challa puts together a team to investigate what Klaue is up to and winds up in a battle for control of the throne of Wakanda itself, with the precious anonymity his country has been holding onto hanging in the balance.
In Fruitvale Station and Creed, Coogler demonstrated his ability to bring emotion and character work to the foreground, whether working on an indie canvas or within the framework of a larger franchise. Working from a script co-written with Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), he does the same in Black Panther. T’Challa is still recovering from his father’s death, and he’s torn between the duty to carry on Wakanda’s traditions, and the growing realization that he may need to examine some of them in a different light if he’s to be the kind of ruler he aspires to be. Boseman plays him as quiet and thoughtful, ready to leap into action as Black Panther when the moment requires it, but more often, he’s happy to patiently wait and take the more measured approach.
Supporting him is a stellar supporting cast, with every actor and character given their own particular moment to shine. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira unleashes fury as Okoye, the head of Wakanda’s special forces, while Lupita Nyong’o demonstrates impressive fighting skills as Nakia, a spy and T’Challa’s would-be love interest. Andy Serkis reliably chews scenery as Klaue, while both Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett add considerable gravitas as a Wakandan spiritual guru and T’Challa’s mother, respectively. Letitia Wright (from Black Mirror’s “Black Museum” episode) nearly steals the movie outright as T’Challa’s little sister Shuri, a tech genius who keeps busy being the most sarcastic person in the room, but also spends her time building new weapons and armor for Black Panther. (There’s a particularly fun nod to James Bond’s Q early in the movie.)
Even amid those excellent performances, however, Michael B. Jordan stands out. His Killmonger starts off as a cipher with a memorable haircut, but as the film progresses, Jordan imbues him with additional layers of grief, anguish, and fury. Killmonger is the kind of character who, in a lesser film, would have been an easy, rote villain. But Jordan adds a level of humanity to the character that truly sets the film apart. It may be a common complaint that most Marvel bad guys are just the same kind of megalomaniacal madman aiming for the same world-ending goals, but Black Panther breaks away in that regard. Killmonger’s motives are relatable and emotionally resonant. He’s a tragic villain up against a grieving hero.
But for all the strong performances, none of it would hold together if not for the film’s portrayal of Wakanda itself. Marvel’s films have never really excelled at world-building. They may render gorgeous locations or fantastic planets, but the environments never feel real the way the Mos Eisley cantina or Middle-earth do. Wakanda, however, is a complete reversal of that trend. It’s full of rich traditions and culture, and ancient rituals paired with next-generation technological innovations. It’s not just a place some characters hang out in; it’s a fully realized world, worth visiting over and over. (If Disney ever wants to give Marvel a truly immersive theme park treatment, it should start by creating a Wakanda expansion land.)
That’s key because so much of the film’s narrative revolves around the country itself. The old-school way of thinking would have T’Challa keep his country safely hidden, no matter what kind of turmoil is churning in the outside world. But there’s another school of thought growing within the Wakandan people, one that argues a more aggressive stance needs to be taken, particularly when the citizens of other African countries have undergone such horrible treatment on the global stage.
That’s where Coogler and Cole do some of the film’s most impressive work. Given the way Black Panther embraces diversity, and given how heavily the Wakandan culture itself plays a role, it would be almost negligent for the film to not address current issues of race and economic disparity in some fashion. But that can be tricky territory, particularly for a film as mainstream as Black Panther. To the credit of the filmmakers — and the studios — the movie never shies away from these issues. Instead, it weaves them into the story at a core thematic level. Even better, it doesn’t pretend to offer easy answers or platitudes. Through its characters, it offers two different extreme points of view. T’Challa’s first instinct is to protect his country by not getting involved and ignoring the outside world. Others want to use Wakanda’s full technological and military might to seek retribution for hundreds of years of injustice. But neither option is truly tenable, the film says. It suggests that these destructive cycles may only be broken through guidance, education, and global leadership.
That’s a lot to pack into what some will likely expect to be a carefree superhero blockbuster, but it works precisely because Coogler and his collaborators are able to deliver so deftly on the big superhero beats. The fight sequences with Wakanda’s women warriors are breathtaking; a car chase featuring T’Challa and his sister (remotely controlling the car from her Wakanda headquarters, no less) is thrilling. The film isn’t perfect: in some action scenes, Black Panther’s suit looks more computer-generated than realistic, and the hand-to-hand combat sequences can come off more chaotic than compelling. (Christopher Nolan’s work in the Dark Knight trilogy comes to mind at times.) But as a whole, the movie plays with tremendous energy and awe.
Every new Marvel movie is an opportunity for a new direction, a chance for the studio to refresh its formula and bring in new elements. For the last few years, those elements have mostly been comedic (Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man) or satirical (Thor: Ragnarok). With Black Panther, Coogler doesn’t try to distinguish himself by making a sillier movie than his predecessors did. He clearly aspired to make something better, something deeper and more meaningful. Given what a glorious, inspiring film it is, it’s easy to wonder why Marvel waited so damn long.