Director: Ryan Coogler
Ten years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everytime you think they’ve peaked, they’ve proved us wrong, yet with Black Panther they very well might have outdone even themselves. Where delivering the black answer to Iron Man would have likely been enough, instead they’ve done far more with Black Panther, delivering an Afro-futurist James Bond with the level of mythos and background characters usually reserved for something like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It’s grand, it’s great, and brother, let me tell you, it more than delivers on the hype.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa, the Black Panther returns to Wakanda to bury his father, and assume the throne as the new king. He takes control of a kingdom facing a crossroads, and a decision on which path to take for the future of the isolated African nation—to continue the centuries of isolation, or to open Wakanda to the world, for good and for ill. The path will not be an easy one, with foes like Ulysses Klaue and Erik Killmonger taking shots at T’Challa abroad, and the sins of the father being laid bare at home, one thing is for sure: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
At its simplest level, Black Panther is a Shakespearean family drama, where even the most familiar beats can be forgiven thanks to an ensemble cast that brought their A-game and a director whose capable hands at the helm and visionary style elevate the film to an entirely new level. Toss in some bold political subtext ala Captain America: Winter Soldier and the Marvel Cinematic Universe may have delivered one of the best comic book movies ever made—let the debates on just where it ranks begin in earnest now.
That cast is truly remarkable in a number of ways, and the least remarkable may be the one everybody has fixated on, that for all but three white guys (one of whom is Stan Lee), the entire cast is black. The more remarkable thing for me is that ensemble casts this large that work this well together are damned rare, and it’s a treat to see a movie deliver so many memorable performances that mesh so well together.
As one of the breakout stars of Captain America: Civil War—and not to toot my own horn, an actor I have been hyping up since he played Jackie Robinson in 42—Chadwick Boseman really gets to shine as T’Challa, in a performance that showcases not only the warrior king in a super suit, but a range of human emotions from jovial to mournful. Marvel has always had a gift for highlighting the human side of their movie superheroes, and Black Panther is well served by Boseman reminding the world T’Challa is more than just a man in a vibranium catsuit.
The ensemble cast is remarkable as well, the one two-punch from Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, an idealistic spy, and Danai Gurira’s Okoye, the head of the royal guard, who enjoy a back-and-forth with T’challa that is equal parts comic familiarity and undeniable badassery being a particular joy. Daniel Kaluuya, who some of you may remember from last year’s Get Out, sticks the landing in one of the film’s more complex roles, and Andy Serkis gets to enjoy himself outside of motion caption as the madcap arms dealer Klaue.
The movie’s two biggest breakout stars though may be Letitia Wright as T’challa’s sister Shuri, and Winston Duke as the boisterous and proud M’Baku, who both steal every scene they’re in, mostly thanks to some wickedly funny scenes they get to be front and center for.
Yet even they may pale in comparison to Michael B. Jordan’s chilling performance as the merciless Erik Killmonger. While I don’t want to spoil too much about the film’s central villain, let’s just say somebody took Magneto and turned the Malcolm X parallel up to 11, and that Jordan, once more proves himself to be the best Millenial actor in Hollywood with a performance of terrifying intensity. Much ink has been spilled talking about Marvel’s so-called “villain problem”—a conversation that should have ended by the time of Loki’s first scene in The Avengers—but after Black Panther, I think all but the most vocal Heath Ledger fanboys will be silent.
If there was ever any doubt that Coogler was the best director of my generation after Creed, it should be erased after Black Panther. He once again proves himself an absolute master behind the camera—lots of single-shot long takes, some expertly choreographed fight scenes, and really pulling the most out of his ensemble cast. From the first frame to the last, you can really tell Black Panther was a labor of love for him, and the film is a much richer place for it. If somebody at Warner Bros isn’t getting fired for letting Ryan Coogler jump ship to Disney over how they treated him for Creed, I would be surprised, because he once again went above and beyond the call of duty with Black Panther.
Visually, Black Panther is almost unlike anything ever realized in a Hollywood movie, certainly on this scale. Never before has a movie been so undeniably and unapologetically African, and love of the continent’s peoples and cultures is steeped throughout the film, from the colorful costumes including touches like lip plates and neck rings, and the fictional Wakandan language incorporating the clicks of the isiXhosa language of South Africa. If Black Panther doesn’t inspire a generation of worldbuilding to look closer at Africa for inspiration, I will be surprised and disappointed, and the Afro-futurist aesthetic is almost worth a ticket by itself.
While I’m probably not qualified to speak of its cultural importance—though I would say it’s probably too soon to say just how important Black Panther will be regardless—as a movie in its own right, Black Panther is about as good as they come. It effortlessly juggles a range of genres and tones from family drama to action thriller to science fiction. The entire cast delivers one of the best ensemble performances seen in ages, and a number of careers will likely be born or bettered by being here. From a directing standpoint, Coogler has more than proved himself as a generational talent, and visually, the movie will probably end up as big a genre milestone as Lord of the Rings or The Matrix.
If those early box office predictions are any sign of things to come ($192 million opening weekend), I don’t need to tell you, but I want to say it anyway—Black Panther is an absolute must see that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Soldier, scholar, writer and freelancer, Sean CW Korsgaard is a US Army veteran, award-winning journalist, and freelance writer.