T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, rises to the throne in the isolated, technologically advanced African nation, but his claim is challenged by a vengeful outsider who was a childhood victim of T’Challa’s father’s mistake.
Black Panther is the eighteenth film released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the second film featuring the character since his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War back in 2016. The film is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler and stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. Going in I found it interesting to consider it as a follow-up to Civil War in the same way that Spider-Man: Homecoming was; the respective characters both debuted in that film and the events of it directly affect their first feature. Black Panther was in a unique situation, however, as his origin has not been explored in depth on screen before. To many movie-goes he’s a rather new character. Though excited regardless, I was curious to see how they would craft an accessible first film while building off of the character’s first appearance.
I was very pleased to find that this film stands quite well on its own. There are references and flashes back to the death of King T’Chaka in Civil War, but there isn’t much more one needs to know than that. T’Challa’s father has passed on and it is now time for him to sit the throne and lead his people. There are still the nods here and there to the greater MCU, as expected and appreciated, but the focus is very much on our hero coming into his new role.
This film has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve seen in any of the MCU films. Wakanda is a beautifully realized place full of technological marvels and sublime nature, with hints of mysticism and the unknown underlining it all. The artistic style of the world was especially striking, blending the nation’s advanced technology with more traditional African visual art, garb, music, and dance. Wakanda is devoted to its ancestral roots and traditions to its highest levels of leadership, no doubt thanks to its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. My only real complaint in this respect that we didn’t get to see even more of what their society is like. What we do get to see is really compelling, but I wish we got to see beyond the royal family and the other tribal leaders.
The cast was stellar pretty much across the board. Boseman plays a more unique type of hero to his counterparts in the MCU; cool, collected, and capable, yet still able to slip up sometimes without it being a huge knock against his ego. Despite his competence he is compellingly compromised by the knowledge, pressures, and responsibilities being king puts on him. I also really appreciated the strong female characters that surround T’Challa. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is his former lover and a War Dog, an undercover spy for Wakanda, who aids him throughout the film. I liked her strong-willed nature and sense of responsibility; she feels that Wakanda, with so much to offer the world, should be providing aid to those in needs instead of staying hidden.
Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T’Challa’s brilliant younger sister who designs new technology for him to use as the Black Panther, as well as innovations for the nation itself. I enjoyed the levity and youthful energy she brought to the cast. Last but not least we have Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda’s all-female special forces that serve as the king’s bodyguards. I enjoyed the balance struck between her proud devotion to her role and her more personal rapport with T’Challa. She’s not just a guard, but an advisor and a friend, which created some great conflict for her as she becomes torn between fulfilling her duty and helping those she cares about.
Michael B. Jordan plays an outstanding villain as Erik Stevens aka Killmonger, an American of Wakandan descent who arrives to challenge T’Challa for the throne. He is formidable and dangerous, but it’s his reasons for wanting the throne for himself that make him such a compelling villain. Despite his bad intentions it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Many African nations and people of African descent suffer from the effects of colonialism to this day, and Wakanda has done nothing to help when it has more than enough power to do so. Killmonger holds the advanced nation responsible for doing nothing and wants to change that, he is just going down a darker path towards that end than someone like Nakia. This ethical dilemma—should Wakanda offer the aid it is more than capable of or continue to serve only itself—as well as its consequences are prominent throughout the story and is a lot of what makes it so compelling.
While the film does a lot right when exploring this conflict, I was a little disappointed with how quickly the feud between Killmonger and Black Panther reached its climax. I would have liked the drama and radical shift in politics to have played out a little longer, rather than things speedily leading to a large-scale battle between opposing sides. There are some great moments of Killmonger experiencing and dealing with the mysticism and traditions of Wakanda, as well as T’Challa confronting the mistakes of his father, but it still felt like things moved a little too quickly toward the final confrontation.
Black Panther is an excellent superhero film with a wonderfully realized world, compelling characters, a lot of exhilarating action, and some beautifully poignant moments. The plotline is a little predictable in spots, but the conflict explored is so compelling and resonates with real world issues in such a way that this was largely overshadowed for me. I’m more excited than ever for Avengers: Infinity War, a film that has been built up for a while and I’m certain Black Panther and Wakanda will play a crucial role in.