Friday’s release of “Black Panther,” starring Chadwick Boseman in a reprisal of his role of King T’Challa, marks not only the first series kickoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2016’s “Dr. Strange,” but also the franchise’s first foray into truly relevant social material. While “Captain America: Civil War” touches off from an issue of personal privacy versus surveillance based security, “Black Panther” delves with care, cunning and consideration into topics such as intraracial dynamics, colonialism and resistance.
As an added bonus (and what will likely drive the predicted record-breaking opening weekend), it’s also an incredible action movie.
“Black Panther” picks up with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) where “Civil War” left off: the Black Panther and heir to the throne returning to his home of Wakanda following the assassination of his father, T’Chaka, the former king of the isolated, wealthy (and fictional) African nation. The audience quickly meets the cast of powerful allies that populate the new king’s circle of family, allies and advisors. After T’Challa goes through the required tests to claim the throne, it is discovered that some of Wakanda’s most precious resource, Vibranium, has been stolen by Klaw (played by Andy Serkis, and reappearing after a cameo in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”). In the quest to retrieve the Vibranium and maintain the covert wealth of his kingdom untouched by imperialism, T’Challa discovers new enemies, family secrets and moral dilemmas that shake his foundation.
The pillar of “Black Panther” that makes it so unbelievably rich and dynamic is the cast. Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger is Marvel’s most successful attempt at a truly conflicting villain. By turns in the movie, Killmonger is sadistically bloodthirsty and radically truthful. But this movie’s greatest gift to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a host of differing, complex, kick butt women. The General of T’Challa’s guard is Okoye (Danai Gurira) whose stoic loyalty to the throne, consuming love of those she protects and steely humanity make her as much a warrior hero of the film as the Black Panther himself. Nakia (Lupita N’Yongo) is a humanitarian and spy working to protect surrounding people from the consequences of terrorism, colonialism and fundamentalism. A past love of T’Challa, Nakia pushes back against Wakanda’s policy of isolationism that cements its status as a nation rich in resources, culture and tribal diversity untouched by colonial influence. Finally, and perhaps most glaringly winning, is T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who plays a duel role of being his gadget aficionado, chief of technology and savage baby sister.
The character development achieved for even minor characters rivals what has been done for other heroes over the course of three or four or five movies. Their interactions with each other are genuine and nuanced, and the writers (Ryan Coogler, who also directed, and Joe Robert Cole) craft scenes and conversations that speak of a vast history, culture and universe outside of the room, without spending time devoted to clunky world-building. The soundtrack of the film, which was produced by Kendrick Lamar, is pitch perfect and might become your favorite album of the year so far.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, driving all of the brutal fight scenes, explosive car chases and witty banter is a plot that grapples with topics far deeper and more relevant than the usual territory of a Blockbuster. The conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa ultimately comes down to a cultural dichotomy in the black and African community between assimilation for survival of an individual and culturalism for survival of a heritage. It also confronts the divide between passive resistance and active uprising. On both counts, it gives no answers, and leaves those on and off screen in conflict.
If you are in the market for a groundbreaking film that prioritizes black identity, the voices of women of color and social debate, go see “Black Panther.” If you are looking for a superhero movie with crazy fight scenes, absurd technology, reality bending visuals and an earwormy soundtrack, “Black Panther” delivers that too.