Director: Ryan Coogler
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 134 minutes
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands, the most interesting cinematic stories within it are the ones that narrow the focus. That’s certainly true with Black Panther, a vibrant film that beautifully blends superhero action with a poignant, Shakespearean-in-scope story. With the emphasis squarely on the mythical African nation of Wakanda, there’s plenty of room for the elegantly-crafted story to breathe, the political intrigue to play out, and for several of the multi-dimensional characters so shine. The large ensemble is terrific, making actions and their consequences feel real and meaningful.
After the king of Wakanda is assassinated – as seen in Captain America: Civil War – the honor and burden of leading the hidden nation falls to his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). The introductions made in that previous Marvel film spare us a laborious origin story, and in its stead director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole paint a much richer cultural tapestry.
Mirroring the introduction of Themyscira in Wonder Woman, an animated prologue succinctly provides the history of Wakanda and its miracle mineral vibranium, which has gifted the nation with amazing technological advancements. Taking the mantle of Black Panther, leader and protector of the kingdom, T’Challa, along with his genius little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), loyal General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and ex-flame/warrior Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) face nemeses old and new. The pursuit of vibranium thief Klaue (Andy Serkis) leads to conflict with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a more formidable, and determined, foe.
Wakandan history and its inner-workings are clearly conveyed, mixing mythology with identifiable themes. A backstory tied to early- ‘90s Oakland, an episode that recalls the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, the idea of isolationism and wall-building, and several other touches meld fantasy world-building with real-world social resonance.
An opening filled with engaging ritual gives way to a somewhat shapeless middle that enlists Martin Freeman’s returning CIA agent to act as information giver and receiver, but Coogler always maintains interest with spectacle and eloquent character moments. Conversations feel important instead of just bridges between action scenes.
All the characters are a joy to watch, making us care about what happens to them. Boseman gives off an air of easy regality, understandable considering T’Challa’s mentors are the always great Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. His friendship and ideological differences with W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) suggest a deeper, more complicated kinship than what’s explicitly stated in the screenplay.
The breakout star is Wright as Shuri, stealing every scene she’s in with magnetic charm. She’s Q to T’Challa’s Bond and smart-alecky comic relief, and Wright nails it all. Gurira and Nyong’o are also fantastic, both strong-willed and psychically fearsome.
Perhaps the most impressive character is Killmonger, a refreshingly new type of Marvel villain. Instead of a man/group/deity/entity that wants to destroy the world for some nebulous reason, this guy has legitimate, focused issues. His tortured past feels real and we understand him, even agreeing with much of what he says and does. Up to a point, of course. Jordan captures the ruthlessness in Killmonger’s pursuit of what he feels is justice and generates empathy in the quest for recognition.
The look of the film is just as layered, with landscapes, costumes, and set pieces popping off the screen. The technical riches of Wakanda commingle with colorful tradition, strengthening the ties between advancement and proud history. It’s also interesting that the history isn’t perfect, with T’Challa dealing with hard truths about his beloved homeland and facing tough decisions about whether to reveal Wakanda’s innovation to the oblivious rest of the world.
Action is used judiciously within the story, showcasing Black Panther’s power and adding some cool magic, even if not all of it makes perfect sense. (I’m not quite sure how exactly those vibranium-enchanted charm bracelets work). When he gets to show his speed and might, Black Panther is nothing short of badass.
A car chase in Korea and the climatic conflict are amazing, Coogler and his team bouncing between several locations and characters while always leaving the action clear and providing context for what’s going on within the chaos. Before a showdown in a backroom gambling hall, Coogler deftly provides us with the layout. When fists, bullets, and other weapons start flying, we’re never confused during a stylish, seemingly one-take action sequence that recalls the similarly spectacular fight scene in Creed, the director’s previous (and also great) film.
Keeping the MCU connections to a minimum and guiding a fascinating cultural and character study peppered with rousing action, Coogler inspires and invigorates with Black Panther. The template is shattered right through to a conclusion filled with a genuine excitement for what’s to come; at least as it relates to Wakanda and its denizens.