From the moment the film begins, “Black Panther” is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It’s refined vision of Wakanda and characters fulfill the demands of superhero spectacle with great subtext.
The movie follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to take his place as King after the sudden death of his father. However, when an old enemy reappears on the radar, T’Challa’s mettle as King and Black Panther is tested and he is drawn into a conflict that puts the entire fate of Wakanda and the world at risk.
The world of Wakanda is a fantastical, African nation where luscious landscapes meet science fiction. Co-Writer and Director Ryan Coogler, along with production designer Hannah Beachler, created an “Afrofuturist paradise” that just feels different than the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’ve come to know. The nation is a place where ancient African aesthetics, stunning natural resources and “the most advanced technology on earth” make up a rich and distinct culture.
The world building starts at the very beginning of the films with a dazzling animated sequence illustrating the history of Wakanda and its five tribes. The development of Wakanda continues through visually arresting set pieces like the Jabari tribe’s village in the mountains, Warrior Falls, and the ancestral plane. Wakanda itself is the movie’s heart, its rallying cry and state of mind are tethered by its women and Afrofuturist flourishes.
One could argue that the film could have been titled “Wakanda” because it is as much about the nation and every other person in the film as it is the Black Panther/T’Challa himself. The movie does an outstanding job of giving generous screen time to the people in T’Challa’s life, allowing these characters, the women especially, to be developed in full.
Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the powerful leader of the king’s all female group of bodyguards, the Dora Milaje. She accompanies T’Challa on his missions throughout the film and proves herself to be as capable a warrior as he is, despite lacking the mystical powers of the Black Panther. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is formed as an empathic yet intimidating character. She is T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and one of Wakanda’s “war-dog” spies who are placed around the world to gather intelligence for the country.
Then there is Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s teenage sister and Wakandan princess. She brings a youthful levity to the character that represents the future generation of Wakanda. Shuri is “a child who scoffs at tradition” and oversees the country’s technological advancements. As the head of the Wakandan Design Group, she uses her genius to create anything from vibranium mining tools, to gadgets that aid her brother as the Black Panther. Shuri even gets involved in the action more than once.
The fight scenes are outstanding. They are fast-paced and beautifully choreographed. Proving its label as the “James Bond of the Marvel universe,” the movie kicks off a memorable action sequence in a secret casino before erupting with choreographed mayhem. Wigs are thrown, dresses twirl and before long a female warrior’s bare foot is putting the pedal to the metal, racing through the streets of South Korea.
Now let’s state the obvious, race matters in “Black Panther” and it matters a lot. Having never been conquered, Wakanda has evaded the historical traumas endured by much of the rest of Africa, freeing it from the ravages of both colonialism and post-colonialism. The film touches on larger human concerns about the past, the present and the powerful. In fact, this is the entire motivation of the film’s big bad, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan).
Having heard the “fairy tales” about Wakanda as child in Oakland, California, Killmonger believes that by remaining hidden to the world, Wakanda has been shirking their responsibility as a nation that could have been using their resources to help people who are suffering from oppression and racial injustice around the world. Jordan delivers a truly magnetic performance with one of the most emotional arcs of the film as we learn about his detest for and connection to Wakanda. While his methods are incredibly violent, his motives are hard to ignore, leading to conflict within the nation’s leadership.
Despite it’s fresh feeling, the film follows a similar formula to most of the superhero blockbusters that came before it. It suffers from some predictability and a hero that, for most of the film, seems to be reacting to others more than taking action. He doesn’t seem to know what it is he wants to do as king. Perhaps this is a new ruler’s attempt to keep the status quo, but T’Challa proves himself a capable leader once he finally takes charge. Thankfully this hardly takes away from the adventure, one stuffed with humor and sewn together with love from Coogler, his cast and crew.
Additionally, no other Marvel film has cared so little about the rest of the MCU. If it weren’t for the Marvel logo at the start of the film, there wouldn’t be much to signify that “Black Panther” is part of the larger MCU, and that’s to the film’s advantage. Coogler takes his time developing the world of Wakanda, yet the two hour and 15 minute runtime is still not enough to fill the appetite audiences now have for the fictional country. Something tells me that when I’m watching “Black Panther” again, for the third or fourth time, I’ll find myself quoting T’Challa as he flies over the city of Wakanda early in the film saying, “this never gets old.”
“Black Panther” is being called a “portrait of black excellence” from audiences and critics alike. The film is loaded with moments that are meant, at the admission of the creators themselves, to speak directly to the African-American audience. With a soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar, the film is led by a black director and features the work of a black costume designer (Ruth E. Carter), black hair stylists (Camille Friend) and black writers (Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), all of whom were given free rein to tell their story. The way audiences have embraced “Black Panther” is a a a hopeful sign of what’s in store for future filmmakers of color and the stories they have to tell.