Marvel isn’t exactly well known for allowing their directors to have a voice or complete ownership over their films, but every so often a movie breaks through that is uniquely that director’s. Iron Man 3, both Guardians and Thor: Ragnarok are all MCU films that well and truly exude the voice of that particular filmmaker. But with Black Panther, not only does the film feel like Ryan Coogler’s own, he does the near impossible and is actually able to separate it from the rest of the MCU.
Black Panther picks up a week after Civil War. Following the death of his father, King T’Chaka, his son, T’Challa returns home to the afro-futuristic society of Wakanda to assume the role of the new king and all of the responsibilities and burdens that go with it. Almost immediately, he’s caught in a political tug-of-war between those such as the Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who believes Wakanda should open up to the world and share its resources, and Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, who feels that doing so would leave the resource rich nation vulnerable to exploitation.
The film spoils us with acting talent. Chadwick Boseman continues to deliver the goods as T’Challa, the now benevolent king, struggling with the loss of his father but working towards doing right by his people. He feels the weight of not only his country but the world on his shoulders, caught between maintaining the Wakandan status quo or enriching the rest of the world with the fruits and gifts that Wakanda has to offer. Forest Whitaker is the sage Zuri, doing what he can to help guide the young king while Angela Bassett’s Ramonda helps ease her son’s transition into being king. Andy Serkis looks like he’s having the time of his life as Klaue, Wakanda’s most wanted. While not the main villain, he devours the scenery any chance he gets as the South African national who’s done more than enough to piss off Wakanda’s higher ups. Martin Freeman acts as our eyes looking into a world we might not fully understand, at first being an obstruction then an ally to the Black Panther.
And then there’s Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. All rage and muscle, he is Wakanda’s reckoning, a reminder of what happens when the powerful neglect its people. Jordan brings an anger with him that will make you afraid yet sympathetic of his plight. It’s quite interesting that the best villains that Marvel has on offer are always the product of sins of the father. Heart full of hate and soul full of violence, Killmonger will do the unthinkable and convince some in the audience that what he’s doing is for the greater good.
The real draw of Black Panther, however, is the women. T’Challa’s own personal squadron of badasses is the all-female team, the Dora Milaje lead by the thunderous Okoye (Danai Gurira). Her allegiance is to the throne, and the king that sits upon it, but that doesn’t stop her from overshadowing her boss from time to time. In a blistering sequence set in the streets of Busan, she makes light work of a van full of machine gun toting goons with a simple spear and a strong throwing arm. Nyong’o’s Nakia is the humanitarian-minded spy who’s experienced the world outside of Wakanda and and believes her people can truly make a difference globally. She’s touted as the love interest early one, but you get the sense the filmmakers deliberately make you forget about that so as to not draw away from what an extraordinary individual she is. But, both women take a seat to Letitia Wright’s Shuri. The princess of Wakanda, she’s the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. The resident genius, who’s utterly comfortable in her massive intelligence, she’s given the freedom and the space to let her creativity and innovation run rampant and it’s almost guaranteed that she’ll be the spirit animal to many young women of colour who want to revel in their intelligence and live their truth.
Unlike Asgard, which looks like somewhere but feels like nowhere, Wakanda actually has life to it. It’s clear that Coogler, production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer, Ruth E. Carter have worked hard to cut the isolated and advanced society from an entirely different cloth to the rest of the MCU whilst its plains are bathed in golden light thanks to the talented Rachel Morrison, accompanied by a wonderfully Afrocentric score from regular collaborator, Ludwig Goransson.
There are themes explored in Black Panther which are very much at the front in today’s collective mind that will no doubt bother a segment of viewers. Topics such as isolationism, immigration, foreign aide and xenophobia are all wrapped up in a (very) glossy package of a big budget Marvel film, and the real truth is that it makes the film a much stronger piece. Sure, Wakanda is a fantasy world, and a dude running around in a bullet proof cat suit might be laughable in other circumstances. But when our hero isn’t facing off against other worldly creatures but rather a very real humanitarian crisis borne from the negligence of his predecessors, it does cut a little close to the bone in a way that is difficult to ignore.
Coogler is no stranger to injecting social issues in to his films. Fruitvale Station‘s central premise is taken from a real life instance of police violence on an unarmed black man. With Black Panther, Coogler is able to not only insert a huge amount of social messaging in the story, but do so without slowing the overall film down. While Luke Cage tried and failed at doing the same – sometimes having the character stop mid action to give us a history lesson on Harlem – Black Panther‘s characters are able to do so because it’s so central to who they are. Erik Killmonger’s entire essence is pure rage against not only his oppressors, but the people he believed could have aided him and his people the world over. In fact, part of what propels the entire story forward is a Wakandan seeing first hand the atrocities happening to his brothers and sisters outside of his own nation and desperately wanting to help.
The film isn’t perfect, but hits far more than it misses. While the Busan sequence is pure pulpy perfection, other action codas come off a little muddled and difficult to follow. And even a gifted director such as Coogler can’t, himself completely avoid the ever present threat of the all-cgi punch-on that seems to not only plague the third act of many a Marvel film, but superhero films in general. But, while these flaws might bring the film down for some, there’s so much goodness in Black Panther to revel in that such missteps are easy to overlook.
Is it the best Marvel movie so far? That’s an assertion I can’t make. Guardians of the Galaxy will forever hold a special place in my heart. But Black Panther will be a hugely influential film to people, young kids in particular who will see themselves in T’Challa and Shuri, not only in skin colour, but as a representation of what they can be. Sure, it’s just a movie and Wakanda isn’t a real place, but that’s never stopped us from being inspired by art before. Why stop now?