This weekend, pretty much everyone in the United States and I went to see Black Panther. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of this film ever since the Black Panther character made his triumphant debut in Captain America: Civil War. My anticipation was whetted further with the news of the all-star cast that they had assembled for Black Panther and the fact that director Ryan Coogler would be behind the camera. Though Black Panther would only be Coogler’s third full-length feature, based on his previous work I was confident that he was the man to oversee this important and historic film. The fact that Kendrick Lamar was curating the soundtrack was really just icing on the cake – all the ingredients were there for Black Panther to be something very special.
Of course, what looks good on paper doesn’t always match up to the final product. Coogler and company had to execute for Black Panther to be a success. And while I was confident, part of me was also a little concerned. There’s a lot of pressure inherent with making a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Panther is not your average Marvel movie. By being the first major superhero movie that featured not only a black main character, but an almost exclusively black cast, Black Panther had a level of expectation and responsibility attached to it that perhaps no superhero movie other than Wonder Woman has had to endure. Would the hype of Black Panther be too much to live up to?
Thankfully, Black Panther totally rose to the occasion and more than exceeded expectations. Thanks to uniformly outstanding performances, thrilling action sequences, and a well-thought out story, Black Panther is arguably one of the best Marvel movies to date. I’ve been thinking about the film a lot since I saw it on Saturday, which is unusual for one of these blockbuster popcorn movies. Black Panther sticks with you and gives you a lot to think about and unpack – yet still manages to be a hell of a fun ride.
Black Panther picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, as T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to become king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). Though Wakanda is a country of amazing technological advances and reserves of the metal vibranium, it has remained hidden from the rest of the world. As he ascends the throne, T’Challa must defend Wakanda from outside forces as well as the consequences of a family secret.
One of the smartest moves that I think Marvel made with the character of Black Panther was to introduce him in another movie and get some of his backstory out of the way. We didn’t learn everything about Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, but we learned enough that Black Panther didn’t have to spend a lot of time unpacking his origin story. Black Panther already has a lot to do, in that it is introducing a bevy of supporting characters as well as introducing the world of Wakanda; having to introduce the character from whole cloth in this film would have been almost too much to do.
Because the basics have already been established, Black Panther basically can hit the ground running. The movie opens with a beautiful primer on the history of Wakanda and then continues to do its world building as the movie progresses. As a result, even though this is the first time that the viewer has spent much time in Wakanda, the country feels fully realized and lived in. Unlike some of the other foreign places where Marvel movies have taken place, Wakanda feels like an actual place that we’ve known about forever – and it fully embraces its African heritage. Though the film does move to other locales, the time spent in Wakanda with its royalty really makes all the difference.
I think it’s a credit to Black Panther that the titular character is perhaps among the less interesting people in the film. That is no critique of Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal, which continues to be great, but rather speaks to the deep bench of secondary characters that the film introduces and who feel like old friends by the end credits. This movie has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors and in more than one occasion I am pretty sure that we are watching a star being born.
Much has rightfully been made about the importance of Black Panther for its black representation, but this film is also crucial in its depiction of women as well. The strongest, smartest, and most bad-ass characters in Black Panther are all black women; Dora Milaje, the Special Forces team that protects the king, is made up exclusively of women warriors. I was already a fan of Danai Gurira from her work on Walking Dead, but she is so spectacular in this movie that she almost stole the whole damn film as Okoye, the greatest warrior in Wakanda. There is a fight scene in a casino where she is simply elegance in motion; the cinematography of her kicking ass in a beautiful red dress is seared in my memory. Relative newcomer Letitia Wright gives a breakout performance in her role as T’Challa little sister Shuri, who also is the head of all technological development in Wakanda. She gets some of the biggest laughs of the film and just lights up the screen. Lupita Nyong’o is obviously an amazing actress, but she gets to throw down with the best of them as Nakia, a Wakanda spy and T’Challa’s ex. Angela Bassett always makes everything better and Black Panther is no exception; she has a small role as Ramonda, T’Challa and Shuri’s mother and former queen.
Of course, the men in Black Panther are no slouches either. The internet has fallen in love with Winston Duke, who plays M’Baku, head of the Jabari, Wakanda’s mountain tribe, and they aren’t wrong for doing so. He’s both terrifying and hilarious, which is a pretty hard balance to find. He easily got some of the biggest laughs and cheers during the screening I was at. Daniel Kaluuya continues to do excellent work as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi. Andy Serkis gets to step out from behind his usual motion capture performances to be on-screen as bad guy Ulysses Klaue. Black Panther is basically its own stand-alone movie and there are very few attempts to tie this film into the larger MCU. The one exception is the presence of Martin Freeman, who reprises his role as Everett K. Ross that he originated in Captain America: Civil War. He isn’t a central part of the narrative, but he provides the minimal connective tissue to the wider Marvel universe.
Black Panther has an embarrassment of riches, including having the best Marvel villain of all time (take that Loki). As Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan gives Marvel perhaps the first bad guy that you not only sympathize with, but who has a legitimate beef. Most of the time in Marvel movies, the villains are kind of cartoonish in their quest for an infinity stone or world domination. There isn’t much method to their madness – they just want power. With Killmonger, Black Panther presents a very nuanced depiction of T’Challa’s foil. On more than one occasion when Killmonger is laying out his complaints, you can’t help but think he has a point. Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler bring out the best in each other – Black Panther marks their third collaboration – and this film is no exception. There are heavy issues at play in the conflict between Killmonger and Black Panther with plenty of shades of grey to consider. Their clash is almost Shakespearean and Jordan is clearly having some fun with the role. Killmonger has a swagger and wardrobe that makes you pay attention to him. Killmonger isn’t 100% right, but he isn’t 100% wrong either; viewers will be forgiven if they temporarily forget who their allegiance is supposed to be with. Jordan also has a scene with Sterling K. Brown in the movie that brought more than a few people to tears.
As much as I enjoyed Black Panther, I don’t know that I’m ready to say that it’s my favorite Marvel film. Part of that is fatigue with the genre – for all the things that Black Panther does to innovate and challenge expectations, it is still a superhero movie. There were some twists and turns that I thought were somewhat predictable, given how many Marvel movies in particular, and movies in general, that I’ve seen. While it was visually dazzling and had strong performances across the board, there were some pacing issues where I thought things moved a little slow. I ride hard for the Captain America films and I have a soft spot for all things Guardian of the Galaxy, but while I don’t know that I can say Black Panther is my favorite Marvel film, it is certainly in the conversation.
Some other random thoughts:
- There are two post credit clips in Black Panther, so make sure to stay all the way to the end.
- I sincerely hope that Shuri and Tony Stark cross paths at some point so she can clown on his tech.
- There is so much goodness in this movie that I didn’t even get to discuss the rhinos!
- I cannot overstate how beautiful this film is. I know Wakanda isn’t real, but it would be a gorgeous place to visit.
- Also – this may seriously be the best looking cast ever assembled. Everyone is so good looking – I had to look up to see how old Michael B. Jordan is to make sure he was age-appropriate. Also related – what’s up, Winston Duke.
- Donald Glover gave some notes on the Black Panther script and there were a few places where I definitely think I felt his influence.
I am so happy that I saw Black Panther is a packed theater with a diverse crowd. There were a lot of families at the screening I was at, and knowing that some of these children were seeing people that looked like them for the first time as superheroes made my heart full. It also made me happy that some boys (and their parents) who may have opted out of Wonder Woman because it was “too girly” were tricked into seeing a film that provided plenty of examples of strong women. Black Panther could have buckled under the weight of expectation and responsibility, but instead it raised the bar for the whole damn genre while making history. With the runaway success of both Black Panther and Wonder Woman, hopefully this changes the conversation about what kind of movies can be successful.
Black Panther is currently in theaters nationwide.