Black Panther might be the most complex Marvel feature to date. It’s a superhero movie, a spy flick, and a sci-fi spectacle that explores issues of colonialism, isolationism, and feminine strength.
That’s a lot of ground to cover for a big-budget action blockbuster. Yet Black Panther not only works on a functional level, it distinguishes itself in a sea of comic-book adaptations, different and powerful where others have begun to feel like more of the same.
Picking up shortly after Captain America: Civil War, the film begins with T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returning to Wakanda—secret high-tech African country—to ascend the throne. After defeating a challenger from the mountainous Jabari tribe, King T’Challa gets word that longtime Wakandan enemy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is heading to South Korea to sell a stolen Vibranium artifact. Here Black Panther dips into James Bond stylings, complete with a casino showdown, a Q analog in the form of T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and a death-defying car chase through the streets of Busan.
Soon T’Challa encounters the film’s main antagonist, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an American black ops murder machine with a grudge. This is where things start to get complicated.
Killmonger’s chief motivation is revenge; however, coming of age fatherless in Oakland has also taught him firsthand the plight of oppressed people, and he wants to help those in need. Though his means are unquestionably villainous, Killmonger is sympathetic in the same way as Magneto from the X-Men franchise, and this (mostly) sets him apart in a Marvel Cinematic Universe where the bad guys almost exclusively seek omnipotence.
This updated backstory, lined up beside Wakanda’s isolationist policies, gives director Ryan Coogler a huge soapbox to unpack contemporary American issues. Comic books have dealt with social topics to some degree for decades, but Marvel’s transition to the silver screen has so far left a lot of that on the page.
As Taika Waititi’s comedic sensibilities turned Thor: Ragnarok into an unexpected success, Coogler’s ability to objectively dissect both nuanced figures and racial politics—a skill that made Fruitvale Station such an impressive debut—brings the underlying spirit of the comics to the forefront. Hiring a 30-year-old director with only two feature films to his name was a bold move by Marvel, and it paid off.
Of course, a phenomenal cast is also necessary for those concepts to carry any weight in a costumed hero narrative, and one look at the jam-packed Black Panther poster shows you’re getting just that.
With T’Challa, Boseman provides a solid foundation at the heart of the movie, and things only improve from there. It’s no surprise that Michael B. Jordan is again incredible, and Andy Serkis almost steals the show in a rare live-action performance.
But Black Panther also puts emphasis on strong women: Wright effectively balances her role as a brilliant scientist by also pulling the most laughs, while Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira both play members of the Dora Milaje—an elite, all-female special forces squad—with equal badassery. Add Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, and Martin Freeman for kicks and there’s an unfair amount of talent in this movie.
Put it all together and Black Panther is one of Marvel’s best. It’s a superhero movie with substance, and we can all get behind that.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o
Theater: Area theaters, now showing