Almost a year ago exactly, first-time feature director Jordan Peele released Get Out, as significant a film as you could imagine to usher in an administration that seems to have declared war on anyone who doesn’t look like its leadership. And it seemed, at the time, perfectly reasonable for a black man to be paranoid concerning the smiling white people around him.
Today, just a short year later, comes the latest superhero offering from Marvel Studios, Black Panther, a film that flirts with the idea of an all-out revolution to fight against those currently in positions of power. The movie even dares to ask if one of the most interesting villains the studio has ever put on screen might not be a villain at all. Perhaps he is simply a man trying to better his people and bring them out from under the oppression of drugs, poverty, crime, and all forms of brutality, using any means necessary.
Picking up right where the action left us after Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther takes us deep into the secret nation of Wakanda. It’s the world’s most technologically advanced territory, located in Africa and kept hidden from the outside so no one will attempt to take its most valuable resource—a seemingly endless supply of the rarest mineral known as vibranium. This indestructible metal is what Captain America’s shield is made of, but that’s only a hint at what this material can do. The Wakandans sew it into their clothing and use its unique properties to spearhead unfathomable technological advancements, ranging from aircraft that look like tribal masks and insects to medical miracles.
There are factions in Wakanda who believe keeping this tech a secret is a mistake and that the new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) should release these secrets selectively into the world to help the disenfranchised, such as refugees and those being suppressed by warlords and other oppressive leadership. T’Challa must face a challenge to his throne, but since his father was the previous king, the throne quite naturally goes to him.
Director Ryan Coogler (who co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole) takes us through the many layers and members of Wakanda’s existence, including the royal family—Angela Bassett plays Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother and former queen; Forest Whitaker plays his uncle Zuri; and the spirited and soon-to-be fan favorite Letitia Wright plays sister Shuri, whose mastery of technology makes her perhaps the smartest person in the country. But the playful sibling rivalry between her and T’Challa makes for some of the movie’s most humorous moments. Surrounding T’Challa are members of the all-female special forces known as the Dora Milaje, led by Okoye (Danai Gurira of “The Walking Dead”), as well as military adviser W’Kabi (current Oscar nominee from Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya) and an undercover operative for Wakanda, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend.
A major part of what the Dora Milaje does is track down any stolen vibranium that had gotten out into the world. The more that is out there, the more danger there is that Wakanda might be discovered, especially by the likes of professional thief and war profiteer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), last seen losing his hand in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s since had his hand replaced by a weapon using Wakandan technology and has teamed up with the mysterious Erik Killmonger (a genuinely terrifying and intriguing Michael B. Jordan), an American and former military assassin who seems to have his heart set on getting to Wakanda and settling some old score that is set up at the beginning of the film in a flashback sequence featuring Sterling K. Brown.
Jordan’s ferocity makes him easy to despise at first, but once his purpose becomes clearer, we see him as someone who clearly sees himself as a liberator and protector of the world’s undervalued. It’s a beautifully written character with complexities that befit the filmmaker of Fruitvale Station and Creed. Killmonger’s message is “Enough is enough,” and he wants to swoop into Wakanda, take over as king, and release all of its secrets to desperate nations and citizens around the world.
Also on board to help protect Wakanda and stop Killmonger is CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a character last seen in Civil War. His interrogation scene with Serkis is particularly tasty, especially when you consider that the two actors last worked together in a scene in the first Hobbit movie. But more importantly, Ross represents the fish out of water in this African nation he knows nothing about until the minute he’s brought there to have his life saved.
I should also mention the character of M’Baku (Winston Duke), another Wakandan leader of a tribe that lives outside of the main hub that surrounds the crown. He and his people live a bit more off the grid, less reliant on tech but still very much a part of the nation as a whole. M’Baku doesn’t choose sides easily in the conflict with Killmonger, but once he does, his loyalty is unbreakable. Even the smaller supporting characters get their moment to shine in Coogler’s hands, as he makes it clear that no one is disposable.
Black Panther is loaded with messages about family, resistance, loyalty, killing in great numbers in order to save others, isolationism, and what it would take to bring the world a little closer to peace. There’s a speech T’Challa gives in the mid-credits sequence that is as pointed and jaw-droppingly bold as anything a Marvel film (or most other movies of late) has given us in the studio’s 10-year history. Much as I thought when I saw Wonder Woman last year, I’m beyond excited that we get to see Black Panther prominently featured in two films in a single year (Avengers: Infinity War is out in less than three months).
Speaking of which, if I had one major criticism of Black Panther, it’s that the glimpses it gives us of Wakanda as a functioning, complex metropolis are too brief, and I was genuinely curious about the main city’s working parts. But if the Infinity War trailer isn’t being misleading, it’s clear that we aren’t done with Wakanda by a long shot.
Black Panther may seem like a risky proposition for Marvel, but perhaps the fact that the studio is such a hit machine makes them the best candidate to try something with some amount of edge. Boseman has such charisma, charm, depth and grace, it’s as easy to believe him as a king as it is to see him do insane acrobatics as a superhero. He wants to do right by Wakanda as well as the world, but there’s a swagger to his walk that tells us he knows he looks cool doing it. But he looks five times cooler with those around him helping and Ryan Coogler directing him.
This is easily one of the finest Marvel films and/or superhero movies ever made.