Finally. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come through, shaken up the formula, and delivered something different. Black Panther (2018) is fresh, exciting, and thoroughly entertaining, and best of all it lays waste to the excuses. This one could changes things.
Black Panther tells the tale of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther and defender of Wakanda—an obscure African nation that is quite secretly the world’s most technologically advanced. Wakanda has long maintained a peaceful stance of isolationism, but the political winds are changing as T’Challa becomes king in the wake of his father’s death. His ex, superspy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), thinks Wakanda should open up, sharing aid and technology to help solve the wider world’s many problems. His friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) feels a more aggressive position on the world stage is warranted. But T’Challa, influenced by Wakanda’s long-standing traditions and rituals, takes some convincing. This process begins when T’Challa, Nakia, and top warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira) venture to South Korea to recapture the treacherous Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has stolen Wakandan vibranium and is planning to sell it on the black market. It continues when a long-lost Wakandan heir, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), returns to Wakanda to challenge for the throne. Through it all, T’Challa—and his many allies, and even his enemies—are forced to make difficult choices to determine the fate of a nation.
On the surface, Black Panther delivers much of what one would expect from a major Marvel franchise film. A charismatic central hero presented with thorny dilemmas. An ensemble of memorable friends, family members, love interests, and sidekicks. Eyeball kicks galore, chaotic fight sequences, collateral damage (alas), and a climactic, spectacular battle. Casual fans of the MCU’s other offerings will not beg for the usual ingredients.
But Black Panther is also groundbreaking. Here’s a superhero film with not only a black lead, but an almost entirely black cast. With multiple female supporting characters, all of them formidable, distinct, proactive, and badass. With nuanced, sympathetic villainy. And that makes heartfelt, relevant, powerful statements about the state of the world. In short, here’s a superhero film that proves the MCU need not be a homogenous franchise ruled by the market-driven decisions of risk-averse executives, and which demolishes the many fraudulent excuses for branching into new territory. It proves the MCU can serve up the requisite thrills and laughs and spectacle but also give us something different, show new perspectives, serve different narrative and demographic needs.
By and large, the film doesn’t put a foot wrong. The music is effectively Marvelesque, but layers on an appropriate cultural sensibility. The film is visually stunning, and not just in the usual frenetic, action-y ways. The Wakandan cityscapes, the costumes, and especially the sleek depiction of Wakanda’s futuristic technology are breathtakingly realized. The performances are perfect across the board. Boseman anchors the proceedings with stoic gravitas, but there is no shortage of memorable support. Nyong’o, Gurira, Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke, among others, provide depth and nuance to the Wakandan identity. Jordan is riveting as an uncommonly accessible villain, and Letitia Wright is a scene-stealer as T’Challa’s tech-genius sister Shuri. Serkis is an absolute treat as Klaue, while Martin Freeman provides adroit comic relief. Best, there are no throwaway characters, no token roles, and every character has a distinct ethos that informs their positions and choices.
Overall, Black Panther is in every way worthy of the buzz it’s generated and the success it has achieved. If it is not the MCU’s most accomplished feature, it surely must be close, and one hopes its unprecedented success will change Hollywood for the better.