Director Ryan Coogler’s addition to the Marvel stable is a gorgeously realized experience. A franchise film that can also pretty much stand all on its own, Black Panther is unlike anything the studio has yet produced, from its eye-popping costumes to the integral role of its characters’ hair to its Afrofuturist production design.
It’s also a deeply political movie, one that feels both long overdue and perfectly timed. Black Panther makes statements in its representation (the two white men in the cast have maybe 15 minutes of screen time between them), but also in its messages of female empowerment, national identity, and the systemic oppression of African Americans.
Black Panther explores the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), heir to the throne of the African country of Wakanda. Wakanda is secretly the most technologically advanced country on Earth, thanks to extensive deposits of vibranium, a powerful metal. The film picks up shortly after the death of T’Challa’s father, with the prince set to take on the royal mantle and with it, the role of Black Panther, the super-powered protector of Wakanda.
T’Challa is helped in his role by powerful women, including his genius inventor sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female security force, led by Danai Gurira’s elite general, Okoye. The new king is challenged by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American with his eye on the throne and a grudge against the royal family.
For generations, Wakanda has cut itself off from the outside world to prevent its people and resources from being exploited. But a regime change presents the opportunity to choose a new national identity, and for T’Challa to decide what kind of ruler he’ll be. Killmonger, whose experiences as a black man in America have left him clamoring for vengeance, comes for the throne hoping to use Wakanda’s weapons to start a new world order. Wakanda will join the rest of the world whether Killmonger succeeds or not. The question is whether the country will reveal itself as a fearsome international superpower, or a force for equality and good.
Black Panther’s dialogue between these two points is weakened by its treatment of Killmonger, who falls victim to pacing issues. He’s positioned as the film’s antagonist, but only starts getting attention a third of the way through. That first third is dominated by a plot tying the film back to the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe, but pushes Killmonger to the sidelines, keeping the real action from getting started. Most of Black Panther’s other characters are beautifully fleshed-out, but Killmonger, easily the most complex character of the bunch, ends up feeling one-dimensional.
Apart from this, the film shines, with a vibrant cast of characters, including smart, capable women leaders, scientists and warriors who are each the absolute best at what they do, and whose work is never sidelined by men. The world of Wakanda, too, feels lived-in and unique. From a visual perspective alone, you could watch the film dozens of times and find new details to enjoy.
Black Panther is celebratory of its black and African roots, while remaining a solid action film that all audiences can enjoy. The movie’s central moral quandary also mirrors the questions we currently face as a country. Should we be building walls, or making it easier for people seeking a better life to enter our borders? Should we use our resources to exercise military might, or to fix a system rigged against people of color and people in poverty? Wakanda knows its answer. Perhaps Black Panther can help American audiences reconsider ours.