Easily the most anticipated movie of the first part of this year, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther marks a tremendous shift in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe (shepherded into existence by uber-producer Kevin Feige, who has a reputation for crushing directors under his thumb) and the entire superhero genre toward righteous parity. It also fucking rules, but you know how these “opening paragraph” things go, so I have to keep you in suspense some what.
Black Panther is the culmination of years of intense planning and preparation on behalf of Feige and Coogler, and it’s the realization of every nerd’s hopes and dreams that were created the moment Chadwick Boseman walked on to that stage at a Marvel Event in 2014 and was announced as the actor who’d finally be the first to portray T’Challa, king of the technologically-advanced African nation of Wakanda, on the big screen. Coogler, director of Creed (the modern classic and best sequel to the original Rocky) brings every ounce of his skill and talent to the table here, and aptly navigates the same studio interference without losing his essential talents as a filmmaker. It is an incredible achievement, one so wonderfully realized that you’ll thank Jesus that F. Gary Gray decided to direct Fate of the Furious instead.
When we last left T’Challa, he’d apprehended the villain who murdered his father and avenged his death (Editor’s Note: See ‘Captain America: Civil War’ for the full story!), and when this film begins a week later, he’s preparing for his full ascension to the throne of his futuristic country, hidden from the rest of the Earth by force-fields and shields. Wakanda’s great technological success comes from the incredible and super-strong metal Vibranium, of which their nation is built atop a great quantity of and that you might recognize as being what Captain America’s shield is made of. Despite a brief challenge by M’Baku (Winston Duke, who has the film’s best laugh-line), the leader of a separate Wakanda people known as the Jabari, his claim on the throne goes smoothly.
Across the globe in the UK, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) — the only person who’s ever escaped Wakanda with stolen vibranium (Editor’s Note: Which was used to provide Ultron with new body in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’!) — and his partner Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a scene-stealing Michael B. Jordan) break into a museum and steal a priceless artifact made of, you guessed it, vibranium. The two attempt to sell the precious metal to the highest bidder at an underground casino in Seoul, and T’Challa is alerted to their presence. He’s told by his best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) to bring Klaue, the man who killed his father, back to him dead or alive, and T’Challa leaves for Korea. What and who he finds there will rock him to his foundations, possibly kill him, and endanger the world as we know it.
So yes, it’s got all the palace intrigue of a given episode of Game of Thrones with the kind of globe-crossing thrills typically reserved for a James Bond movie. It’s grounded in a swell performance too: Boseman’s significantly more comfortable in the role than he was in Civil War, though that’s partially by design as has been acknowledged by the star and director. He’s the second Marvel character to be introduced in an ensemble film before going on to star in their own solo feature, following the Tom Holland iteration of Spider-Man, and that characterization makes sense: He’s outside his element in that film.
Here, he’s strong and capable, with a generous sense of humor as well as a developed emotional history with the people around him, through his relationships with wonderfully realized characters like his genius sister Shuri (a fantastic Letitia Wright) and his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira, who deserves so much better than what she’s given on Sundays on The Walking Dead), and they’re never treated as if they’re second class in the way that some of Marvel’s female characters have been made out to be. His relationship with his ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is among the healthiest we’ve glimpsed so far in the Feige films, and they have a love and respect for one another that feels alive and sweet. So, he’s given color and life when put in his normal surroundings, with the people he’s comfortable with and the physical places he thrives in. And what splendorous surroundings those are, with Wakanda essentially being a Silver earth-bound Asgard, seated in the middle of lush vegetation and rolling hills. His populace feels alive and real in a way that the fictional cities of the MCU hasn’t, and it’s delivered with a sense of style and finesse that goes beyond ’80s grimy sci-fi or generic Viking warriors.
If anything comes close to stopping Coogler’s well-oiled joy machine from entertaining audiences, it’s the patented Feige Structure, which is applied here in its worst possible way. The second act drags like a motherfucker after Killmonger attempts to challenge T’Challa for the throne (it also doesn’t help that our protagonist disappears from the film for a significant period of time after that as well, who as far as I can remember is the only Marvel lead to do so), though it doesn’t come close to derailing the film. It’s just disappointing to see the same old gears turning under what looks like the best version of it so far. Also, the proud tradition of Marvel slamming the door on their best villains continues, which makes sense for these solo films but closes off any and all development. Remember, guys: Loki wouldn’t be Loki if he didn’t make it out of Thor, and that Hiddleston performance wouldn’t have ever found its grounding if he didn’t get a second go at it.
But Jordan and Serkis both make lasting impressions, with the former bringing the gravitas (Killmonger and his arc being tailor-made for thousands of Monday morning thinkpieces from respectable outlets) and the latter with an agreeably personable take on the Foreign Psychopath trope that we often see in these movies, only this time his South African heritage adds a bit of depth to it. They bring their A-game, and Coogler doesn’t let them down.
By the time Black Panther has reached its third act, the movie’s made a seamless transition from Batman, the influence present in the opening sequence in which T’Challa intervenes in one of Nakia’s undercover missions by dropping from his aircraft and using gadgetry to defeat a troop of soldiers; to Bond, where the deeply amusing casino fight sequence represents a better Roger Deakins pastiche than the entirety of Spectre; to boundless epic fantasy as soon as the war rhinos storm the battlefield and beats are directly (and pleasantly so) lifted straight from Tolkien — specifically the Battle of Helm’s Deep and it’s conclusion.
At points it feels almost as if that the film wishes it could singlehandedly make up for years of black spec-fic and genre fiction that just never got a chance to be thanks to white cultural hegemony, and that is most decidedly not a slur against it. Few blockbuster films have the epic tonal scope of something like this, and even fewer manage to pull it off well enough to maintain a consistent overall quality. Coogler and his ensemble have crafted something truly special here, and while it most definitely is not the first superhero film with a primarily black cast to draw attention from critics and audiences alike, it may be the most important in the years to come.
Note: A quick word on theatrical presentation: I’d highly recommend seeing this on a pretty powerful DCP if you can, because the film’s low-lit and a number of the best action sequences take place at night. This means you’ll get a decent amount of digital noise with your standard 4K projectors, which made shit pretty hard to see at the screening I attended. This also means that you should avoid 3D showings as well for similar reasons, and it seems that IMAX 2D is the best way to go here if you want to be able too see everything clearly no matter where you sit.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Image via Walt Disney Studios.