The hero of the tale is, of course, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of Wakanda and, as the Black Panther, protector of his people. Having drunk the nectar of a mystical flower, he has the strength of many men; in a suit woven of bullet-proof vibranium, he is virtually indestructible. (That’s the Marvel part.) Indeed, Wakanda itself is built on the bounty of a meteorite bearing vibranium—the strongest metal on Earth—that struck Africa millennia ago. Technologically advanced beyond the dreams of any other nation, Wakanda cloaks itself from the world behind an illusory rainforest. As far as the rest of the world knows, it is a “third-world country—textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.”
An advanced African civilization, thriving in isolation, untouched by war or colonialism: This is the first alternative vision of the world Coogler explores, but neither the last nor the most intriguing.
As the new king—his father having been killed in Captain America: Civil War, the movie that first introduced Black Panther—T’Challa is supported, and occasionally hindered, by an assortment of family, colleagues, and rivals: his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a precocious tech genius who outshines even Tony Stark; his regal mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett); the kingdom’s high priest, Zuri (Forest Whitaker); the surly chief of a rebellious clan, M’Baku (Winston Duke); T’Challa’s best friend and chief of the border guard, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya); his chief general and head of the Dora Milaje, an all-female royal honor guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira); and his former flame, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who is also a covert agent for the Dora Milaje.
When we first meet Nakia, she is working undercover to bust a ring of human traffickers operating in Nigeria. (When T’Challa “rescues” her from the traffickers, she is nonplussed: “What are you doing here? You’ve ruined my mission!”) Nakia’s experience in poor, neighboring countries has led her to question Wakanda’s policy of secrecy and isolation. Think, after all, of the good their nation’s wealth and knowledge could do in the world, and in Africa in particular. “Wakanda,” she tells T’Challa, “is strong enough to help others and protect itself.” This is Coogler’s second vision: an African nation that could serve as a beacon of hope—curing diseases, offering foreign aid, accepting refugees—across the continent and beyond.
The isolation that Nakia is now questioning has been imperiled just once before. In the early 1990s, a South African arms trader named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, for once appearing in the flesh rather than motion capture), aided by one of the revolutionaries we met back in Oakland (a tragic, excellent Sterling K. Brown), penetrated Wakanda’s border and absconded with a small cache of vibranium.
But far graver threats now loom. Klaue has begun working with Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a mysterious American black ops soldier trained in assassination and regime destabilization. And Killmonger offers yet a third vision of Wakanda’s potential geopolitical legacy: as the vanguard of a global revolution to invert the existing racial order. With Wakanda’s technology and weapons, insurgents from Africa to, well, Oakland, could successfully rise up against their (primarily white) persecutors. “The world’s going to change, and this time we will be on top,” Killmonger declares, adding, with knife-edge irony, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire!”