From the moment that king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his entourage fly through a portal into the African wonderland of Wakanda, director Ryan Coogler pulls no punches. He’s come to show us that this sprawling technological city on a Vibranium hill does not need a surrounding cinematic universe to support it. This is a world unto itself, with a rich mythology to bask in and a sprawling calvary of characters. Where Marvel’s Thor films shuddered at the challenges of fleshing out a mysterious land with endless possibilities, Coogler embraces them with all his might. He’s created a film that goes beyond simply being about a single superhero. Black Panther is a story about culture and country that just so happens to have a catsuit enthusiast at the center.
That culture is an idealistic one where an uninhibited people have been able to maintain their indigenous heritage while still making incredible innovations in technology. Where most films of this type would be in a rush to pay lip service to that before getting right to the plot, Coogler patiently takes us on a guided tour of T’Challa’s home as he prepares to rule it. We learn about the country’s history, tribes, and traditions, meeting our supporting cast along the way. There are still little sprinklings of action to keep things zipping along, but Coogler’s patience and commitment to fleshing out his characters are what ultimately makes the rest of his film so satisfying.
Once the action does kick in, Coogler fulfills the potential he showed with the incredible boxing sequences in Creed. The fights are beautifully choreographed and are often shot in long, wide takes. The highlight is a brawl in a South Korea casino, with Coogler weaving the camera through the chaos with moments that might will a fist to pump in the air out of sheer delight. Most impressively, the violence here carries serious consequence. People die and their deaths lack ambiguity. The CGI effects of the third act action sequences don’t live up to the high bar set as they start to take center stage over the practical combat, feeling a touch more plastic and taking some of the feeling of jeopardy out of it.
Where the majority of the Marvel leading men are hyper-energetic charisma sponges who soak up the spotlight, Chadwick Boseman wisely pulls back and brings a quiet dignity to T’Challa. He’s an even-tempered man who leads not by overpowering his castmates with quips, but through the power of his ideas and actions. Michael B. Jordan sublimely counters him as Erik Killmonger, a righteously furious warlord who aspires to use Wakanda’s weapons against the rest of the world. This is not your standard two-dimensional Marvel villain who just wants to take a shiny object and set off explosions. He’s a wounded warrior who has become so consumed by rage that violence is all he knows. The film gets a lot of mileage out of T’Challa and Killmonger’s isolationism vs extremism dynamic, asking provocative questions about an advanced nation’s place in protecting the greater world at large.
While Boseman and Jordan stand at the center of the conflict, it’s the women of Wakanda who make the biggest impression. Newcomer Letitia Wright steals every scene she’s in as T’Challa’s 16-year-old tech wizard sister, Shuri. This could’ve easily been a character that came off as silly and pandering, but Wright infuses her with so much humanity. The rush she gets from protecting her people by using her mind is infectious and her interactions with her brother feel completely authentic. Danai Gurira is ferocious and imposing as Okoye, one of the royal bodyguards. She’s so commanding that sometimes it feels as though T’Challa is her backup. The only one who feels a little underwritten is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Nyong’o does what she can with a couple of powerful moments, but her socially conscious spy never really finds a place to settle in a story that’s teaming with larger-than-life characters.
While Coogler escapes many of the pitfalls that superhero movies fall into, the general beats of his script feel rather rote. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done in a thousand different stories about kings and revolutionaries. It’s superbly executed, make no mistake, but this predictability does take some of the air out of what are supposed to be the film’s most suspenseful moments.
Black Panther is going to be a cornerstone of blockbuster cinema, giving a criminally undervalued community the chance to not just be on-screen but to thrive on-screen. That has value in itself, but what Coogler has delivered here is much more than just a social talking point. This is one of Marvel’s most well-realized films to date, a genuine passion project from an immensely talented filmmaker who has nowhere to go but up. It may not break any boundaries in the story department, but perhaps that is necessary when creating a film that has so many other new aspects to offer. It’s time to show the king of Wakanda our respect and bow down.