As the Marvel Cinematic Universe edges ever closer to its ten year anniversary, it’s a great time to see growth. Growth in terms of storytelling, thematic depth and representation of the heroes involved. Admittedly, we’ve had prominent side characters of color in the MCU before. Hell, Black Panther himself Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was one of them in Captain America: Civil War. Along with Tom Holland’s take on Spider-Man, Boseman stole the spotlight with oddly the least wisecracking character of the main MCU characters so far. A proud prince of a technologically advanced African nation who quickly had to step up his responsibilities after his father T’Chaka (John Kani) is assassinated. Black Panther continues T’Challa’s steps forward as king of the hidden African nation Wakanda, inheriting all of the baggage that comes with it. Whether it be the precious mineral of Vibranium that made the country so advanced or the lingering secrets that will seed the potential tumbling of that government, Black Panther is very much a film about succession and the cost of carrying on legacy, especially in a power vacuum.
These complicated themes allow for Black Panther to exist both as a rousing crowd pleaser and an intelligent look at the conflicting ideals one is raised with vs. how we adopt how we were raised to a modern context. When Wakanda is introduced, many would immediately ask why this African super power doesn’t spread the wealth a bit more evenly and help out struggling black people on both a micro and macro level. This is a key question that keeps the various different tribes of Wakanda at odds with each other. Black Panther divides this country in traditional ways between war mongers and diplomatics in ways that feel universal, but keep in mind the ever changing landscape of globalism. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) – the leader of security for the Border Tribe that is the first line of defense for Wakanda – notes that the ways of diplomacy have worked in the past for Wakanda, but the world is evolving and taking charge of defense. It’s a position that seems barbaric & quick, yet isn’t without merit. The ways of the past initially guide T’Challa during his frustrating time, but even he must question how his father lead his people. All of it is firmly steeped in the chaos of our modern world that’s reflected even in this Marvel/Disney sanitized version of our reality.
They – along with the immaculate costume and production design – help make Wakanda feel like a vibrant world. One we still only see the mere surface of yet feel like we’ve lived in for so long. All of the different tribes of Wakanda give off the vastness and centuries lasting culture that provides a unique look for Black Panther for both the MCU and modern blockbusters in general. The contrast between the regal technologically advanced visages of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and the mountainous Jabari as lead by M’Baku (Winston Duke) alone show that the varying climates both socio political and literal within the atmosphere of this nation. Even the herb keeper Zuri (Forest Whitaker) has his place that is shown to be of vital importance to the world of Wakanda, but is treated as a necessary function than something to be over explained. One gets the sense that all of them have been functioning alongside each other with respect yet clear underlining animosity that breathes authenticity in this society and structure that feels lived in.
However, there are further factions that add dimension and complex emotions to the decisions characters make. Both spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and leader of the all female special forces for Wakanda Okoye (Danai Gurira) butt heads over how to continue under traditional Wakandan rules despite extremely dire circumstances. Both are character’s we’ve grown to side with thanks to their quick wit and loyalty in wonderful action moments, such as a particularly James Bond-esque casino sequence. Both show off their superior combat skills, espionage capabilities and general chemistry as spiritual sisters who seek to protect their homeland. Thus, when they’re divided by the conflicting loyalties of the situation, it truly hurts to see the two of them argue. Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler balances these conflicts with remarkable mastery over a massive cast. Even a character like Shuri (Letitia Wright), who could easily be a watered down Q giving T’Challa tech has so much personality, intelligence and life in her that gives her sibling back and forth charm with Boseman authenticity in a way that raises the stakes when she joins in for the third act stand off.
However, Black Panther gives its night sky individual glow off brightest with the best character of the entire piece and perhaps the best example of a villain in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe; Killmonger as played by Michael B. Jordan. Now, MCU baddie isn’t a high bar to skirt over. That’s well explored territory. Yet, Killmonger succeeds where others fail in that his motives aren’t shallow “take over/destroy the world” one dimensional goals. No, the heart of his quest is one that seeks to even the scales by brutal force. He’s a young man who grew up alone and angry in crime riddled streets of California. A boy who grew into manhood in a world that looked down on his kind and expected little of him beyond what one would viciously expect of a poor black youth. So, he grooms himself into a killing machine capable of destroying and weaving himself into the criminal underworld alongside Klaw (Andy Serkis) for more sinister purposes that directly affect Wakanda.
Without spoiling much further, Killmonger is simply the most compelling MCU villain to date… because his motives are completely understandable and even ones that our hero as well as the audience can be sympathetic to. He seeks to fight oppression in the only way he was raised to believe would work; by force. He was shaped by the system that failed him and he only seeks to destroy that system by turning its methods against them. This conundrum of logic that tugs at varying emotional quandaries is incredibly fascinating to see unfold. Particularly as Michael B. Jordan handles them. There’s a nonchalant matter of fact nature to the way Jordan plays the character. With the type of confidence any young man could access, but with a dark twist that gives off both tragedy and terror. He’s charismatic and even convincing at points, but shows off enough brutal rage that gives off worry as he challenges our lead and ultimately changes his perspective.
Even with all these heavy themes, Coogler never forgets to keep his eye on making Black Panther inventive and entertaining. All the action sequences in Black Panther – with the possible exception of a dodgy rough start following the cold open – immerse the audience in the world and its characters while kicking all sorts of ass. The same type of breathtaking beauty and spine tingling chills constantly bombard the senses. Yet, the main goal of keeping T’Challa’s internal character struggle alive while incredible action takes place. The South Korea chase is an incredible example of this, as even when wonderful character comedy and visually eye catching visuals are dazzling on a superficial level, T’Challa’s quest to capture the man who killed his friend’s father and stole his people’s resource is never out of purview for anyone watching.
In those ways, Black Panther is the best distillation of a solo movie within the Marvel spectrum.There are points where the Marvel formula is simply framing together the muscle for an action romp in the same way the Vibranium magnets keep the trains of Wakanda moving along. Yet, unlike a few other less than stellar Marvel solo outings that mildly elevate themselves above the track with a few quirky beats and decently likable characters, Black Panther breathes far more life and energy that feels grounded in a specific perspective of black culture both ancestral and modern. From an overreaching pop culture perspective, it’s nice to see such a perspective reach a worldwide audience and show a strong black figure that can be allowed to breathe life into a blockbuster on equal footing with Captain America and Thor. At the same time, from a completely selfish base entertainment level, it’s just simply refreshing to see this different fresh stamp on a cold formula that could easily get tired. Either way, it’s a win-win scenario that can hopefully spark the seed of inspiration for young men and women of color to aspire to. Even if it is fictional, Wakanda and the characters that populate it can give hope to the future scientist and social leaders who seek to make it a reality in the same way scientists grew up admiring Star Trek. Only… ya know… this one has more than just a few token minorities. What’s the harm in that?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Vibranium Fibers
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