Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, with Angela Bassett, with Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis.
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole (screenplay), Stan Lee, Jack Kirby (characters)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Studio: Marvel Studios, Walt Disney
Run Time: 2hr, 14 min
At this stage, it’s impossible to separate Black Panther from the identity politics that currently consume this country. The film dives head-first into the debate, and frankly is worthwhile on those elements alone. Acrimonious racial divisions, stoked by cynical manipulation and systematic abuse are currently a raw, angry nerve in American culture, and Black Panther succeeds gloriously first and foremost as an affirmation of black empowerment and inclusion. It’s bold, proud and absolutely unapologetic, but it goes about its business with neither animosity nor isolation. It welcomes us into its world, encourages us to embrace its characters as paragons of uniquely African strength and virtue (not just African-American, but African), and opens a whole new side of the MCU in the process. Marvel’s cinematic colossus stands at the top of the pop culture heap right now, and to present this side of it so assertively makes this movie a badly needed lightning rod.
Beyond that, it’s another grand romp through the MCU with an appealing hero, a fascinating villain, and a new sandbox to play in that dials the Wild Factor to 11. Wakanda, a secluded African nation long thought to be poor as dirt, actually hides the most sophisticated society on Earth thanks to its monopoly on the super metal, vibranium. Their technology is centuries ahead of the rest of the world, and they’ve maintained control over it via extreme isolationism and an unwillingness to involve themselves in outside affairs.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) became king of Wakanda following the events of Captain America: Civil War, and claimed the mantle of the Black Panther as his birthright. That includes exceptional physical powers thanks to a mystic herb and a ton of Q-branch goodies courtesy of his brainy little sister (Letitia Wright). All seems well until the rise of an angry outsider (Michael B. Jordan) with an eye on T’Challa’s kingdom and the means to take it from him if he isn’t careful.
Director Ryan Coogler brings a strong sense of the Shakespearean to the plot, as sons deal with the failings of their fathers and family black sheep plot bloody murder. The power politics lends real-world weight to the usual good-vs.-evil conflicts (though it leaves Andy Serkis’s glorious Ulysses Klaw with comparatively little to do). More importantly, it girds the popcorn with substantive questions, making it one of the MCU’s more thoughtful entries in the process. The issue of whether Wakanda should interact more with the outside world – and the difference between providing aid and supplying weapons – weighs heavily on all of the characters. Furthermore, with Wakanda’s traditions and institutions cemented by centuries of precedent, shifting loyalties force T’Challa’s supporting cast to ask themselves where their real allegiance lies… and makes a telling comment on our current political situation in the process.
Of course, you don’t need to engage Black Panther on that level if you want to just have a blast. The “Afro-tech” art direction is off the chain, and Coogler cranks up the adrenaline levels to a happy level during the copious action scenes. The Black Panther’s high-tech gizmos carry the proper sense of niftiness as well, and the whole film feels close to the more outlandish James Bond entries (think late 70’s Roger Moore) in the best possible way. There’s plenty of energy here to support another half-dozen stand-alone Black Panther movies, with just enough connection to the larger universe to make sure we remember where it’s all coming from.
It takes a lot to combine simple pleasures with something more substantial, but Black Panther accomplishes it in a way only a small handful of earlier MCU movies can match (The Winter Soldier comes immediately to mind). On top of it all, there’s Boseman: affirming his brilliance as the lead and backed by a uniformly excellent supporting cast. With them to lean on, Coogler elevates his concept to something quite original, while making a sorely-needed statement in the bargain. Marvel hasn’t brought out its big guns yet this year, but knowing that these characters will be there for Infinity War makes the prospect of that film even more exciting. Any way you look at it, Black is beautiful… and the juggernaut franchise to which it belongs just got a little bit better as a result.
Rob Vaux has worked as a professional film critic since 2000: writing for such sites as Collider, Mania.com, Flipside Movies and the Sci-Fi Movie Page. He also runs a blog, www.cinema-stache.com, covering musings and notions on the world of film. He lives in sunny Southern California with his wife and a whirling menagerie of animals.