Note: Although this review avoids plot spoilers, it does discuss the thematic elements of the film at some length.
After an animated introduction to the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, Black Panther opens in Oakland in 1992. This may seem an odd choice, but it is in fact quite apt. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, got his start in the city, having been born there in 1986. His filmmaking career has its roots there, too, as it was the setting for his debut feature, Fruitvale Station.
A bunch of schoolboys (a fictionalized young Coogler perhaps among them) play pickup hoops on a court with a milk-crate basket. But in the tall apartment building above them, two black radicals are plotting a robbery. There’s a knock on the door and one of the men looks through the peephole: “Two Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks—with spears!” I won’t recount the rest of the scene, except to note that the commingling of two very different iterations of the term “Black Panther”—the comic-book hero and the revolutionary organization, ironically established just months apart in 1966—is in no way accidental, and it will inform everything that follows.
Yes, Black Panther is another multizillion-dollar installment in the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that is not all that it is. Other superhero movies have dabbled in big ideas—the Dark Knight trilogy most notably, and the X-Men franchise to a lesser degree. But their commitments to the moral and political questions they contemplated were relatively haphazard and/or peripheral. The arguments Black Panther undertakes with itself are central to its architecture, a narrative spine that runs from the first scene to the last.
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!”
The interplay between these competing Afrocentric visions is heady stuff, and not what one generally anticipates from a superhero film. Yet Coogler, working from a script he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), manages to integrate them smoothly into the genre. Whether or not this is the best film Marvel Studios has made to date—and it is clearly in the discussion—it is by far the most thought-provoking. (Though my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates played no direct role in the film, his recent work on the Black Panther comics was a substantial inspiration. And Vann R. Newkirk II has more, much more, on the thematic resonances of the movie.)
As should be apparent by now, Black Panther brings together one of the most impressive principally black casts ever assembled for a major Hollywood movie. (Klaue is one of only two significant white characters, along with CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman.) A particular standout is Jordan, who has now starred in all three of Coogler’s feature films. (He deserved a superhero role this rich for suffering through Josh Trank’s disastrous Fantastic Four.) As has been noted ad nauseum, the single most common flaw of Marvel’s movies to date has been their lack of intriguing or memorable villains. (Ronan the Accuser? Malekith the Dark Elf? Please.) Killmonger—vicious yet relatable, especially once you know his backstory—single-handedly improves that track record to a remarkable degree.
It is notable, too, that so many of the film’s central characters are female. In a spirit journey, T’Challa speaks with his dead father, who counsels him to “surround yourself with people you trust.” T’Challa follows this advice and, as a result, surrounds himself almost exclusively with women. On a brief, Bondian foray to a casino in Busan, South Korea, T’Challa brings along Nakia and Okoye as teammates. A later mission has a still-greater female/male ratio of three-to-one. This is a film that does not merely pass the Bechdel test, it demolishes it. Moreover, there is an uncommon richness to the female characters, in their interactions both with T’Challa—as mother, as sister, as ex-lover, as bodyguard—and with one another. A scene late in the film in which Nakia and Okoye question the basis of one another’s loyalties is among the best in the entire movie.
And, yes, of course, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, with all that entails. Happily, the film is allowed to stand mostly on its own, without major tie-ins to the broader Marvel universe apart from Freeman’s CIA agent. (The second post-credits sequence includes a character that you should have, but probably won’t have, seen coming.) The production and especially costume design—both of which emphasize African elements—are top-notch, and the overall visuals arresting: the panthers that T’Challa encounters in his spirit dream; the glowing spiral staircase that winds its way down into Shuri’s lab; the Kong-skulled palace of a renegade Wakandan tribe.
The fight sequences are also better than usual—in particular, two instances in which T’Challa must submit to the Wakandan ritual of blood-combat to retain his throne. And while the movie concludes with a customarily big, CGI-laden battle, at least neither side is populated by faceless Chitauri or Ultron-bots. If anything, the finale more closely resembles those of the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings pictures. (Two words: war rhinos.)
In T’Challa’s spirit dream, his father also offers the advice that “it’s hard for a good man to be king.” Which raises the question: Is it hard for a good movie to be king? If the formidable box office predictions for Black Panther are remotely accurate, the answer will be a resounding no—and quite rightly so. All hail the new king.