While we’re only two months into 2018, the year’s most eagerly anticipated film has already arrived with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, which is a decidedly stunning addition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) directs the long-running franchise’s first black-led film with dazzling, groundbreaking results, ultimately becoming a true cause for celebration.
The character of Black Panther (played by the wonderful Chadwick Boseman) made his impressive MCU debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, instantly becoming a fan favorite through the slight appearance. Here, T’Challa, the recently-crowned king of Wakanda — which is a fictional, secretly prosperous African nation in possession of virtually infinite supplies of a made-up super metal called vibranium — is really allowed the chance to be the A-list superhero he was always destined to become. It was no question that this film and this character would end up being an important milestone in the superhero genre as well as an inspiration to countless children around the world, but it’s extremely gratifying to be able to relay that Black Panther is also the stellar solo-outing that so many of us wanted it to be.
Black Panther actually begins fairly unexpectedly with a short scene set in 1992, Oakland, as the titular hero’s father, King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), visits his far-from-home brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown). Turns out N’Jobu has become a traitor to his own people, having assisted an outsider arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), in retrieving some of the nation’s precious element. This opener sets in motion the events that propel the rest of the film’s narrative, which take place in the present day following the events of Civil War.
T’Challa remains heavily affected by the loss of his father, which occurred in Civil War, as he steps into power over Wakanda. Early on, in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, T’Challa is stripped of the Black Panther’s power (which is also extracted from vibranium) and forced to challenge his spot for the throne in a deathmatch. The scenery here is gorgeous, effectively defining Wakanda’s endlessly fascinating world in under ten minutes, and the luscious backdrop will only continue to awe as you’re allowed to better explore its beautiful landscapes by the time the movie comes to its satisfying conclusion.
Returning to the sequence at hand, we are presented with a handful of colorful and exquisitely dressed tribes who are watching atop a waterfall as T’Challa brawls with M’Baku (Winston Duke), a leader of an outcast tribe. Similarly striking is the hand-to-hand combat that’s highlighted here, which is distinctly visceral in comparison to the film’s other action-packed sequences, although it’s just as well-choreographed as the more superheroic, over-the-top scenes on display elsewhere. Coogler proved he had an eye for sensational hand-to-hand combat with his work on Creed, and it’s refreshing to see that that aspect of his filmmaking transferred seamlessly to Black Panther. There is no doubt in my mind that this is among my favorite Marvel films in terms of spectacular action set-pieces, of which there are many here.
Perhaps my biggest complaint regarding Marvel movies of late is their one-dimensional villains, like Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, or Kaecilius in Doctor Strange. Thankfully, Black Panther dispels this by introducing its central antagonist as the carefully crafted Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). From his introduction as a basic thief that somehow knows a little too much about vibranium, to his final standoff against T’Challa, Killmonger is a fascinating character to watch in every respect. The character’s overall intentions, too, took me by surprise. Killmonger doesn’t want control of the Wakandan throne for personal gain, but rather in order to use its valuable resources to take vengeance on those that have, for hundreds of years, kept his people down. In this way, Black Panther becomes more than just a blockbuster superhero film. Coogler (along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole) valiantly addresses themes that I never in a million years would have thought been included in a major Disney-owned production through hidden symbolic messages, let alone as a major plot point.
Jordan — who has only continued to impress me with his developing acting ability throughout the years — is among the film’s greatest strengths; you can almost physically see the charisma emanating from his figure every time he appears. But it’s important to note that Jordan is but one among a wonderful cast of supporting characters, which is almost entirely made up of black actors, and also shines a spotlight on an unexpected number of significantly resilient women. As much as I am a fan of the titular character, I think Black Panther is made infinitely better through its many compelling sidekicks, with prominent black performers like Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira leading its enormous ensemble of likable characters. Gurira (who stars on The Walking Dead as the samurai sword-wielding badass, Michonne) is especially revelatory in her role as one of T’Challa’s bodyguards, becoming another high point within the film’s seemingly limitless index of engaging characters.
I can’t think of another film of this scale that features what is virtually an entire cast of black characters, and it’s honestly awesome to see. The talent that’s on display here is second-to-none; from the numerous faces I recognized, to the many others I was introduced to here. This includes T’Challa’s snarky sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who provides much of the film’s pointed comedic relief, working best alongside the ever-lovable Martin Freeman. Freeman, who reprises his role from Civil War as Agent Everett Ross, is, as always, extremely lovable here.
Black Panther perhaps only slips due to my own intensifying fatigue with comic book movies, and yet, it is still easily among the best films Marvel has produced. Every aspect of the film is precisely constructed, from the gorgeous costuming to the well-arranged and bombastic moments of action scattered throughout. Ryan Coogler is a master director in the making, and Black Panther may just be his most defining moment yet.
4.5 stars out of 5
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor