Every spear raised, every gun drawn, every drop of blood spilled in Marvel Studios’ dazzling, deeply-felt Black Panther stems from a single inciting incident. The film opens with a brief history lesson on Wakanda, Marvel’s fantastical, technologically superior African nation, and then we flash back to a bloody betrayal in 1991 that sparks a decades-long vendetta that could mean the end of Wakanda — and the modern world — as we know it.
The flashback takes place in Oakland, California, which may seem like an unusual way to kick off a movie predominantly set on the other side of the world. If you’ve been following the career of filmmaker Ryan Coogler, however, the urban setting makes perfect sense. A Bay Area native, Coogler painted a striking picture of Oakland in his breathtaking debut feature, Fruitvale Station (2013), and he spotlights the city again in Black Panther because, well, he’s just being true himself.
One of Coogler’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is that all of his work feels intensely personal. Fruitvale Station encapsulates the anxieties and dangers of being a young black man in the Bay, and his Rocky spinoff Creed captures the existential anguish of growing up without a father. Black Panther is, at its heart, keen insight into black identity and the African-American community’s fractured relationship with its African roots.
There is great weight to the material — one character mutters “they knew death was better than bondage” in reference to the Africans who jumped off of the first slave ships to their doom, which is one hell of a line to unpack — but Coogler elegantly weaves these heavy threads into a larger film tapestry that is at once an action-packed superhero adventure, a sexy spy thriller, a palace intrigue drama, and a poignant tale about the pains and perils of leadership.
Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as T’Challa, who saw the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), as a result of a terrorist bombing during the events of Captain America: Civil War. We rejoin him as he makes his return to Africa to succeed his father both on the throne and as Wakanda’s super-powered protector, the Black Panther. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but T’Challa seems ready to bear the weight — he’s a strong-minded, iron-willed, virtuous man who’s hasn’t got any glaring character flaws (another Marvel coming-of-age story this is not, thank goodness).
What T’Challa isn’t ready for, however, is to pay the price for what his father did on that fateful night in Oakland. Underworld arms dealer and cackling brute Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, spluttering and delightfully cartoonish) serves as the story’s initial antagonist, though his rage-filled, sharp-shooting cohort, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has even greater bad-guy ambition, holding onto a dark secret that could destroy Wakanda from the inside out.
Helping T’Challa hunt them down are his dutiful allies: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), an international superspy who also happens to be his ex-lover; Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira), the ferocious head guard to the throne; and his little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda’s lead tech designer and the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. Martin Freeman plays Everett K. Ross, a government agent who finds himself unexpectedly entangled in Wakandan affairs, though he’s eager to help (he acts as a proxy for white Americans comedically perplexed by black culture, though that’s far from his defining characteristic).
More than almost any other solo MCU outing, Black Panther takes time to flesh out its entire ensemble, even going so far as to withdraw Boseman from the screen for a large chunk of the third act. Each character is clearly defined and carries their own quirks and senses of humor, and it’s nice to see such care taken in the handling of the supporting players. Shuri loves playing pranks on T’Challa and playfully badgering him with smartass remarks, and their mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) keeps them in line while also lifting their spirits. More importantly, the women in this movie are varied, complex, and have real impact on the story, and none of them fall into the “badass chick” caricature that’s plagued modern movies for too long. They’re strong people to be sure, but they’ve got their own weaknesses and unique worldviews, too.
The popular criticism levied at Marvel Studios is that their villains lack depth and resonance, but to this attack this film stands as impervious as Black Panther’s bulletproof suit. Killmonger is a fascinating representation of the consuming hatred that can build in those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, and forgotten, and he’s as much a window into Coogler’s worldview as T’Challa is. Jordan’s performance is electrifying (this marks the third-straight time the actor-director duo have worked together, and with hope, it won’t be the last), though Boseman’s just as riveting and in no way gets overshadowed.
Intimate character moments most vividly showcase Coogler’s strengths as a director, but he proves to be deft with big-budget action as well. During the first hour the story hops over to Busan, South Korea, for an exhilarating car chase that sees T’Challa and Okoye mounting speeding cars as if they were runaway zebra, barrelling through the crowded city streets as Klaue blows their metal steeds to bits with his weaponized arm, having a laugh all the while. The action is fast and brutal, and while none of the set pieces are exactly groundbreaking, they’re unique enough to deflect any “seen this before” complaints.
The film’s visual style isn’t quite like anything we’ve ever seen because Coogler isn’t quite like any other filmmaker. He’s got a unique vision, and as a result, much of the movie looks like it could be the cover art for an underground hip-hop album from the ’90s. Dark caves are illuminated by the green and purple glow of magical flowers, bringing to mind A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory”; Wakanda is a wondrous mashup of African wildlife, urban environments, and shiny-future sci-fi, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the artwork for Outkast’s “ATLiens” and “Aquemini”. None of Marvel Studios’ movies are lacking in visual flourish, but this one’s got a flavor all its own.
Black Panther is to superhero movies what Get Out is to horror movies. It’s a story for black people, from a black person’s perspective, and unapologetically so. That’s not to say that it’s an exclusive experience — this is a decidedly inclusive movie that shines a spotlight on a culture that we rarely get to see on this kind of platform and on this scale. Coogler is one of the most exciting young filmmakers we’ve seen in a long time, and as long as he continues to tell his truth, he’s going to go on to have a magnificent career and help bring the black community the representation its long been due, to the benefit and enlightenment of us all.