In the Thor movies, we’re used to the camera lovingly panning through the wonderland of Asgard, magisterial music blaring, spectacle rolling by. In Black Panther, simply replace Asgard with the African country Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world. This sense of wonder is right here on Earth, not in the far-flung cosmos, and the question of what the King of such a utopia owes to the rest of the world is central to the film; newly crowned King/Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is still finding his feet when Erik “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) challenges his claim to the throne.
The film opens with the intertitle “Oakland, 1992” (incidentally the city and year of my birth), establishing the setting of Erik’s upbringing. Upon seeing the post-Jetsons Wakanda, Erik calls for the nation to help its descendants affected by the African Diaspora in overthrowing their oppressors and “starting the world over”. And this causes a great conundrum for the audience. Wakanda is hidden and unspoiled, but their secrecy makes them the envy of everyone watching the movie. Minus the violence, Erik’s evil plan loses the evil part. Smartly, other characters like Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) and W’Kabi (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) make political arguments that are just less extreme versions of what Erik is saying. It’s up to T’Challa to mediate all these points of view, and by the movie’s end, he’s found a way forward.
Erik’s association with Oakland, both early in the film and reinforced in a beautiful moment toward the end, makes him in some way a stand-in for Oakland-born Ryan Coogler, director and co-writer of this very motion picture. Like Joss Whedon said of writing Avengers: Age of Ultron, “You’ve got to love your villain”. There’s a lot of Whedon in Ultron, and a lot of Coogler in Killmonger.
Our hero T’Challa is a very internal character, so he doesn’t so much own the movie as center a great ensemble. Other standouts include M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the independent Jabari tribe, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), General of the fierce Dora Milaje, essentially the King’s elite all-female Secret Service. Best of all is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who fulfills several archetypes; she’s the sister, the Q to his James Bond, and the comic relief (and, on paper, a Disney Princess). The virtually all-black cast includes two significant roles for white men, including Martin Freeman reprising his Marvel role as Everett K. Ross. Freeman is really smart casting because he’s so likable, but also a schmo and easily put in his place. Trailers for Black Panther used Ross as a POV character to introduce the concept of the hidden country of Wakanda. “I’ve seen gods fly, I’ve seen aliens fall from the sky, but I’ve never seen anything like this”. By proxy, he was representing white mainstream moviegoers. Thankfully, the angle of using him as an “in” to the world of Wakanda is nowhere to be found in the movie proper.
Of course, it’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of a lot of this Afro-Futurist iconography. It’s an aesthetic that informs everything presentational in the film, from production design to eye-popping costume design to cinematography (the Veldt scenes look beautiful) to score. (Ludwig Göransson’s main theme feels very much of a piece with his theme for Creed, his prior collaboration with Coogler.) There’s something to be said for world-building a very fictional space like Wakanda; in a way it makes the audience more invested than, say, a fictional version of New York City does. We’ll see how this plays out in Avengers: Infinity War, when Wakanda is threatened by a full-on alien invasion.
The action here is a bit of a mixed bag. Some sequences impress, like a brawl in an underground gambling den that Coogler brings one of his Creed-style one-shot wonders to, and a Lord of the Rings-esque battle on vast grassy fields. But the film suffers from occasional CGI issues, and their nadir is the final Panther-on-Panther fight between T’Challa and Killmonger. These are already non-tactile suits, glitching like an ugly Microsoft Paint program, fighting in a heavily digital environment. It’s too many layers of unreality. On reflection, I don’t think that on a visual level, there’s ever been a worse main hero vs. main villain fight in the MCU.
There are minor storytelling problems here and there – a romantic connection between two characters that could’ve been mined for great drama but is largely forgotten, awkward scene transitions – but the operative word is minor. There are certain tipping points in the film, when Shakespearean revelations come to light and the plot viscerally pivots, where everything just works. These moments are operatic, befitting the talk of royal succession. Black Panther is a dynamite entry in the superhero genre, another win for the MCU, an action movie that touches on vital political themes, and a hub of groundbreaking Afro-futurist iconography that will inspire all who see it. Long live the King. 9/10.