Contains spoilers for Black Panther.
It’s been ten years since Robert Downey Jr. first smarmed his way onto cinema screens as Tony Stark, the success of that first Iron Man film kickstarting a steady stream of interconnected sequels and spin-offs in the decade since. We’ve seen flying gods, magic-wielding neurosurgeons and wisecracking space buddies all achieve unlikely levels of popularity and financial success, and later this spring Marvel will test the limits of just how big these movies can get with Avengers: Infinity War. In bringing together roughly three zillion different characters in the culmination of a decade-long story arc, Infinity War and its untitled sequel will likely represent something of an inflection point for the MCU, a marker of the end of one era and the start of another. These films can’t just keep indefinitely growing in scale, and with the contracts of many core performers nearing completion, Marvel will have to find new ways to keep their output fresh and exciting. Director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther offers a glimpse at what that future might look like, delivering a film that is as thoughtful as it is entertaining and and that is clearly the product of a focused creative vision.
‘This never gets old’, T’Challa mutters as he passes through a holographic forcefield and arrives in the glittering utopia of Wakanda, and it quickly becomes clear why the novelty hasn’t worn off. A fictional African nation that appears on the surface to be a destitute Third World country but in reality is rich in miracle-metal vibranium, Wakanda has leveraged the material and used it to become the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Such an abundance of valuable resources could easily attract unwanted attention, though, and so Wakanda decided long ago to hide its true wealth from the rest of the world in order to keep its prosperity intact and its culture pure. Following King T’Chaka’s untimely death, his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned home to assume the throne and officially take on the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda and its people. And protect them he must, for it is not long before U.S. special-ops soldier Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) sets into motion a plan to find Wakanda and use its advanced weaponry to wreak havoc worldwide.
Returning from his small but pivotal role in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman remains a perfect fit for the part of T’Challa. His quiet nobility and silky charisma apparent both inside the Black Panther suit and out, Boseman plays T’Challa as a good man fully aware of the weight of his crown and determined to make the right choices for his people. He is tested, though, and comes to appreciate that the price for Wakanda’s good fortune has been the suffering of others. The legacy of his country is far more complicated than he once thought, wth past rulers including his father making difficult choices that are difficult to reconcile, and Boseman plays that inner struggle deftly. Between the Wakanda-heavy Infinity War and inevitable Black Panther sequels, Marvel seem to be betting big on T’Challa, and it’s not hard to see why.
An excellent supporting cast represent both sides of T’Challa’s conundrum: while his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) urges him to use Wakanda’s extensive resources to provide aid to other nations, his unflappable bodyguard and confidante Okoye (Danai Gurira) remains a staunch traditionalist, her loyalty ultimately being to the throne and not the person sitting on it. T’Challa’s precocious and ingenious sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a delight to watch, taking on the role of a playful Q to his 007 in the first of several Bond-inspired scenes, while his friend W’Kubi (Daniel Kaluuya) serves as an affecting example of the unfortunate human cost of leaders failing to keep their promises. Forrest Whittaker is a disappointing non-presence as spiritual figure Zuri, failing to make much of an impression before meeting the same fate that all Marvel movie mentors do, and it’s a shame to see him so woefully under-utilised. Even if he’d been given a meatier role, though, even an actor as formidable as Whittaker would be in danger of being overshadowed by Michael B. Jordan’s captivating turn as the film’s villain.
The MCU has struggled to offer compelling, memorable baddies but Killmonger immediately proves himself to be a cut above previous antagonists. Jordan is electrifying in the role, seething with a righteous fury as he seeks not only to settle a personal score but to right a historic wrong, and his tight physicality betrays an impatience to finally complete the mission he’s spent decades preparing for. Killmonger has witnessed first-hand the systemic racism that keeps black communities impoverished and neglected, and sees Wakanda as being complicit through its isolationism. While other Africans endured centuries of famine, colonisation, slavery and genocide, Wakandans led charmed lives and did nothing to help despite having the means and ability. After years in the military, learning firsthand how to destabilise governments and spark violent revolutions, Killmonger has now set his sights on Wakanda’s devastating arsenal, seeing it as a way to free black lives from oppression and restore them to a place of equality, if not outright superiority.
This is a fascinating motivation for an antagonist, one that seems at odds with a studio firmly in the business of producing crowd-pleasing mega hits. The MCU has dealt with weighty themes before — the Captain America films have played with questions of surveillance and personal liberty, and Tony Stark is a reformed war profiteer — but it has never produced a film so politically charged, that engages with difficult subject matter so pertinent to conversations we’re having right now. Coogler never goes so far as to condone Killmonger’s methods, but he goes to great lengths to humanise the character and grant validity to his viewpoint, even if his actions are abhorrent. Killmonger’s story is further deepened by the presence of CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and deranged smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who both prove themselves to be far more than mere token (or Tolkien) white guys. Klaue represents everything that his employer Killmonger hates, a white pillager who has grown rich by selling artifacts and resources stolen from black countries, and the tension with which their uneasy alliance plays out is delicious. Serkis is clearly having the time of his life in the role, tip-toeing right up to the line of overacting, and it’s great to see him taking more roles that don’t see him obscured by digital burns or fur. Ross, meanwhile, instantly recognises Killmonger’s tactics as being pulled straight from the CIA playbook, and we see him come to recognise and seek to make amends for the pain that his country’s past interventionism has caused.
Sadly, while Black Panther is rich in engaging political ideas, it fails to function anywhere near as effectively as an action film. Hand-to-hand combat sequences are shot jerkily and edited haphazardly, making some fight scenes frustratingly difficult to follow. Larger set-pieces, meanwhile, are undermined by subpar visual effects, with poorly-rendered CGI stuntmen bouncing weightlessly across the screen. That the film’s action leaves something to be desired is a shame, as Black Panther otherwise represents a big step forward visually for the franchise. Entries in the MCU often tend to employ a kind of house style, the look of any two movies often feeling uncannily similar, but cinematographer Rachel Morrison and production designer Hannah Beachler have developed a vibrant Afrofuturist aesthetic that sets it apart from its sister films. Composer Ludwig Goransson’s score is another MCU standout, augmenting traditional orchestral bombast with African chants and 808 beats. Original songs featuring and produced by Kendrick Lamar round out the film’s sonic landscape, adding a dose of modern hip hop culture to a story that is preoccupied with all variations of the black experience, from the very beginnings of life in Africa to the modern day projects of gangland Oakland.
All of these elements contribute to a film that feels unique and singular, a work recognisably crafted by an artist rather than being designed by committee. That’s not something the MCU has quite been able to achieve before, and Ryan Cooger should be proud that he’s managed to make a $200 million movie that contains as many interesting ideas as it does explosions. Black Panther isn’t always successful but it offers a shining example of what Marvel films are capable of doing when treated with care and passion. It is that rarest of things: a blockbuster that is actually about something, and if this is the calibre of filmmaking that we can expect from Marvel moving forward, then the MCU’s future looks very bright indeed.