How do you balance the safety of the few versus obligations to the many? Should the sins of the past be buried or brought to light? How can a good man be a good king? Black Panther is not just another comic book film or an enjoyable MCU installment. Director Ryan Coogler has established in T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) a complex, layered, admirable monarch. Black Panther transcends being “just another comic book movie” in the way Wonder Woman did last year. It’s culturally relevant, brilliantly imaginative, groundbreaking, challenging, and in its 18th installment the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced its best film yet.
Black Panther has received well-deserved critical acclaim in the run-up to its release, as well as news coverage for being the first major comic book film to feature a black hero in a mostly black cast. T’Challa is the king of the technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda, and-aside from Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman-the rest of the cast is black. The director is black (Ryan Coogler also co-wrote the film’s excellent screenplay). It features the most interesting black character in comic history, and while the film never shies from where it takes place or the issues relevant to its character’s race, this is no more a “black” film than Captain America is a “white” film. It’s simply a great film that builds the mythology of a fantastic African nation and establishes a unique hero to the MCU as strong, smart, and different, as any Avenger. In other words, this is a film for everyone.
Black Panther debuted in Marvel Comics in 1966. He’s a king before he’s a superhero; he’s Tony Stark-level smart, and his powers rival any Avenger. There are so many interesting facets to the character, and Boseman does a wonderful job of portraying T’Challa as he makes the journey from reluctant king to visionary leader. Black Panther also introduces a whole host of new supporting characters to the MCU, wonderfully realized, and fleshed out over the course of the film. Marvel has done a fantastic job in introducing new corners of their world and populating them with strong supporting casts. Black Panther’s roster is stellar with the aforementioned Boseman, Serkis, and Freeman returning from previous MCU films joined by Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker, Lupita N’yongo, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, Michael B. Jordan, Winston Duke, and Letitia Wright, who nearly steals the film as T’Challa’s tech savvy sister, Shuri.
A very valid criticism of the MCU is that in its first 18 installments, it has spent its time on its heroes to the detriment of its villains. It’s a testament to how well-cast and developed the heroes have been, because a lot of the villains have been forgettable at best. This is certainly not the case with either the return of Serkis’s Klaue (who we last saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron) or Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. The best villains are convinced they’re right in what they’re doing and are either charismatic enough to convince the audience that they are justified in their actions or do have legitimate points that they’ve taken to unacceptable extremes. Killmonger forces T’Challa out of his comfort zone and makes him face uncomfortable truths about the past of his family and the policies of his country. He’s lethal, driven, but also completely understandable and sympathetic. As an adversary, he’s probably the best villain the MCU has produced to date.
After reinventing the Rocky franchise with Creed (a film whose entire cast it seems has been sucked into the MCU), Ryan Coogler has proven himself just as adept with a super hero epic. He does such a good job at fleshing out and developing a dozen characters in a story of palace intrigue, that if there’s any criticism to be made of the film, it’s that the superhero parts aren’t nearly as interesting as the character drama and the exploration of Wakanda. That’s not to say the superhero facets to Black Panther aren’t fantastic, but no other MCU film has had as strong a script, cast, and world to explore outside of costumed action as Panther does.
As we draw closer to the end of this first 22-film arc of the MCU, the new characters being introduced (Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, etc.) and the permanent altering of previous characters such as Thor and Hulk, have created a wealth of story opportunities that won’t require Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. for the franchise to continue and thrive. Like Thor: Ragnarök, Black Panther forever changes the landscape of the MCU as it introduces its titular character. However Infinity War shakes out, the MCU will be a very, very different place in its wake, but the stories keep getting better. Avengers: Infinity War may very well offer more spectacle, jaw-dropping visuals, and long-due plot developments than Black Panther, but I highly doubt on its own it will be as outstanding a film. This is truly something special.
PS – After my preview night showing (sold out for all showings), people were screaming, “WAKANDA FOREVER!” in the parking lot. I couldn’t agree more.
PPS – There are two end credits scenes; neither of which is to be missed!