It’s finally here – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Black Panther is an epic that doesn’t walk, talk or kick ass like any other Marvel movie – an exhilarating triumph on every level from writing, directing, acting, production design, costumes, music, special effects to you name it. For children (and adults) of color who have longed forever to see a superhero who looks like them, Marvel’s first black-superhero film is an answered prayer, a landmark adventure and a new film classic.
But wait a minute: Hasn’t Black Panther been around since the 1960s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him for the comics? So why did it take half a century for Marvel to get him up on screen? Chadwick Boseman already played this superhero in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, a supporting role in a Marvel Comic Universe best categorized as #AvengersSoWhite. That’s all in the past. There’s no sidekick or second-banana status here. The spotlight is all his – and his stand-alone, solo outing is history in the making.
Thrillingly and thoughtfully directed and written (with Joe Robert Cole) by Ryan Coogler, the film lights up the screen with a full-throttle blast of action and fun. That’s to be expected. But what sneaks up and floors you is the film’s racial conscience and profound, astonishing beauty. Not just a correction for years of diversity neglect, it’s a big0budget blockbuster that digs into the roots of blackness itself. Coogler, 31, has proved his skills behind the camera with Fruitvale Station and Creed, but in Black Panther he journeys into the heart of Africa to bring a new world to the screen. The result feels revolutionary.
Boseman is just tremendous in the role of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda – a fictional African country where he presents one image as a ruler and another as a crimefighting superhero disguised as a panther. His costume is threaded with vibranium, a mineral with magical properties and a national resource that T’Challa keeps hidden, along with his cloistered country’s other huge scientific discoveries. The man’s intellect is his own, but his superpowers derive from a heart-shaped herb found only in his native land. Boseman, a stunningly versatile actor who played Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, digs so deep into T’Challa that you can feel his nerve endings.
Perhaps Coogler’s most inspiring decision is to treat Wakanda as a character itself, a place that resonates with its own social structure and rules of government, including choosing its king through physical challenge. Shot by Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), the first woman to be Oscar-nominated for cinematography in the Academy’s shameful 90-year history, Black Panther is alive with visual miracles. And Coogler has populated it with superb actors who play it like they mean it.
Besides the brilliant Boseman, you can bring out the superlatives for Michael B. Jordan, blazingly good as Erik Killmonger, the movie’s villain and a figure from T’Challa’s past. Yet the young actor plays this warrior (he scars his body with notches to represent his kills) with such tormented morality and emotional intensity that Erik’s humanity is never in doubt. Daniel Kaluuya, an Oscar nominee for Get Out, is also aces as W’Kabi, T’Challa’s friend and head of security. And screen giant Forest Whitaker brings soulful dignity to Zuri, the King’s spiritual mentor.
If you’re thinking you’re in for another macho power trip, forget it. The women are more than a match for the men in this game, from the iconic Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s widowed mother, to the ready-to-rumble Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex love and a spy for Wakanda in the outside world. And wait until you see the dynamite Danai Gurira – Michonne on The Walking Dead – fire on all cylinders as Okoye, head of Wakanda’s all-female Special Forces known as the Dora Milaje. Her head shaved, her eyes beaming likes lasers and her weapons at the ready, she is the living definition of fierce.
And there’s no beating the smarts and sass of the wonderous Letitia Wright, who brings scene-stealing to the level of grand larceny as Princess Shuri, T’Challa’s kid sister. “Did you freeze again?” Shuri asks her big brother, teasing his surprisingly slow reflexes in the heat of battle once he catches sight of true love. A scientist and tech-tinkerer, she’s always the brainiest person in the room, giving Q from the James Bond series a run for his money by inventing the coolest gadgets. Wright is a star in the making, who makes damn sure that Shuri will be a role model to young girls for years to come.
What happens when the going gets bloody? The suits at Marvel and Disney have cautioned critics about spoilers to allow audiences “to discover any surprises and plot twists” for themselves. Fair enough … so we’ll shut up about the role the terrific Sterling K. Brown plays in the opening flashback. But it’s fair to mention Ludwig Goransson’s rousing score with hip-hop song contributions from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Sam Dew, Vince Staples and Childish Gambino. And Ruth E. Carter’s costumes, alive with rich color and texture, are already on the march to screen legend. Coogler also rewrites the book on stunts, especially when T’Challa fights Killmonger over a waterfall or Andy Serkis’s South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue battles our heroes in a South Korean casino. (Check out how the car-chase set piece that follows that melee bends the usual clichés into unexpectedly hilarious chaos.) Even CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by a most excellent Martin Freeman, springs surprises to stop the use of vibranium in stand-off that could lead to global annihilation.
The end-of-days scenario isn’t new in the MCU, but what the movie’s director does with it most definitely is. Black Panther is a fantasy film rooted in the here and now. Unlike other Marvel superheroes, T’Challa is a king, a real-life royal with a burden of responsibility. Does he keep Wakanda safe by hiding its technological advances or share them with volatile intruders, who are eager to weaponize resources meant to strengthen and heal? In Get Out, Jordan Peele satirized white appropriation of black culture. Here, Coogler makes black identity invincible, but avoids simplification by turning Wakanda into a society of different tribes, each with its own customs, goals and political agendas that reflect a conflicted world very much like our own.
There aren’t many superhero films that blow you away with thunderous effects and also tackle ethnic and gender issues, crush racial stereotypes, celebrate women and condemn Trump-era notions of exclusionism. It’s easier and way more commercial to be oblivious. But that’s not Coogler’s style. Written and directed by African Americans who make up most of the cast, the film has taken flak from critics who believe that Marvel is hijacking African traditions to sell tickets, bemoaning the fact that the film was mostly shot in Atlanta instead of Africa. But the accusations ring hollow and ignore the mint-fresh inventiveness and passionate commitment to the black experience that’s instilled in every frame. It’s impossible not to cheer Boseman as T’Challa emerges as Marvel’s once and future king. Say this about Black Panther, which raises movie escapism very near the level of art: You’ve never seen anything like it in your life. Wakanda forever!