In the days to come, just as in the days past, a lot of information and opinion about 2018’s Black Panther is going to come at you. You’re going to read about its importance within the context of both black people and the Marvel universe. You’re going to read about how it changes the game regarding how we perceive superhero movies. You’re going to be bombarded by commentary and hyperbole and think pieces and Twitter feeds. It’s going to feel overwhelming. And there’s a great deal to say about Black Panther and its cultural impact and context, because the fact of the matter is no matter how good or bad the film may be, it is important.
It’s going to make a hell of a lot of money, it’s going to establish Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa as a major player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s going to have a longstanding impact on how both audiences and studios see minority-led films. Because much like Wonder Woman did for women last year, Black Panther shows that you can make a movie with a majority-minority cast and it will crush the box office. This is a lesson that people of color have been trying to teach studios and audiences for years, and to have it finally come to fruition is immensely satisfying. You’re going to read a lot about that too. The hype surrounding Black Panther has reached Star Wars-levels of crazy, and it becomes almost impossible to separate the film from the hype surrounding it.
Here’s the thing.
It’s worth it. Believe the hype. Because Black Panther is fucking amazing.
It’s not amazing “for a superhero movie” and it’s not amazing “for a black movie” or any of that shit. It’s amazing because it’s a beautiful, meticulously created, gorgeously shot, incredibly detailed, terrifically acted, brilliantly directed movie. It’s funny and exciting and wondrous to look at. And that it is all of those things, with a virtually all-black cast save for Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue and Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross, and that is an achievement because no one has ever given this type of movie a chance to even exist before. Never mind to completely cut loose. Marvel appears to have given director Ryan Coogler full rein to create a vision of his own, and that vision is utterly breathtaking.
The story has its share of little twists, but it’s ultimately a story about T’Challa, ruler of the fictional nation of Wakanda, a technological marvel that has stayed hidden from the world for centuries. Imbued with incredible strength and speed, he is also the Black Panther, the protector of his people, and yet all of that is threatened with the intrusion of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a driven, furious ex-special forces operative determined to overthrow T’Challa’s reign for his own deeply personal reasons. There are betrayals and battles, twists and tragedies, and it all plays out in an immensely satisfying story that is at once a part of the larger MCU universe, but able to be its own tale.
There’s so much at play within this film that I’m hesitant to discuss more than that, but suffice it to say that its strongest point is a keen intelligence. It’s a deeply affecting film that touches on race and international politics in a way that’s far more interesting and insightful than any of its predecessors by far, as one of its central themes is the idea of Wakanda’s isolationist policy — it exists for its people, and it protects its people, but what of the people outside its borders? Wakanda becomes less a nation and more an idea, and the idea has the possibility to blossom into something incredible. This idea of using what one has to better those around is taken to a much grander scale, and it makes the film feel so much more powerful than your typical film.
Its attention to detail is unbelievable, and it doesn’t take long for Wakanda, a character in its own right, to feel real. Its people, language, costumes, culture, all feel so real and honest and true. Years ago, there was a website (and apologies if I’m misremembering the specifics) called The Africa You Never See, which was curated images and articles about the beauty of Africa, the deeper, intimate parts that aren’t as publicized. You see the darkness, the poverty and tragedy and war, or you see a sanitized, travel brochure version. But there’s so much more that you never see, so much vibrancy and life and art and wonder. Wakanda feels like a representation of that, all due to its incredible design and the way it’s shot. Some will say it feels like an idealized version of Africa, and to a degree perhaps it is that. But it’s also a glimpse of what might have been — what would have happened if European colonists had never set foot in Africa. What would have become of its people, its culture? Black Panther actually asks these questions, and it does so with stunning vision and insight.
This is, of course, aided by an incredible cast of characters. Chadwick Boseman slides effortlessly into the role of King T’Challa, equal parts noble and clever, but also somewhat blinded by living up to his ancestors and hesitant to carve his own path. Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan operative who was once his love, but now seeks more for both herself and her country. Nyong’o is fabulous as the wise and determined Nakia, and she’s part of a larger framework of powerful female roles that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole assembled (with full credit to the original comic book writers who surrounded T’Challa with impressive female warriors). Danai Gurira shines as Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje (Wakanda’s all-female special ops unit), the loyal traditionalist with a no-bullshit attitude, and Angela Bassett delivers a strong performance as Ramonda, T’challa’s mother. If there’s a show-stealer among the actresses though, it’s Letitia Wright as Shuri, the technological genius who designs all of the marvels of Wakanda (and happens to also be sister to T’Challa). She’s a delightful, lighthearted addition who dazzles with her genius and artistry while also imbuing her scenes with an element of playfulness, a pleasant contrast to the seriousness of Boseman.
But in many ways, the film’s greatest achievement is its villain, Killmonger, played with unbelievable intensity by Michael B. Jordan. This is Jordan’s third time teaming up with director Coogler (first in Fruitvale Station and then in Creed), and he’s been outstanding all three times. Killmonger is unquestionably the most well-written, well-developed villain in the MCU. He’s not a mustache-twirling psycho, not a villainous madman. Instead, he’s a downtrodden, angry man who believes deeply in what the legacy of Wakanda should be. He believes in its people and its power, but the disagreement is in his methods, which are brutal and unflinching. There’s real humanity and pathos and pain behind his motivations, and that’s what makes him so utterly sympathetic, even as he’s committing acts we know can never be forgiven. Jordan dives headfirst into the role, giving a performance that virtually eclipses everyone else.
There’s so much more at work in Black Panther, and I could probably write entire articles about its look, its style, its music (Oh sweet Jesus the music). It’s a heady, breathless production with incredible action sequences that, for once, don’t rely on destroying buildings or mass devastation. No, this film is in its own way a deeply intimate picture, taking place almost entirely within Wakanda, even as it becomes a battle for the very world. Its finale is a heartstopper, and its conclusion a heartbreaker. Its cultural impact cannot be denied — years from now, a generation of black men and women will point to it as (hopefully) a turning point, a moment when Hollywood and comic book movies made something that was truly for them, for the first time (no disrespect, Blade). But its themes and story are so much more, that Black Panther and Wakanda becomes something for all of us. Get out there and enjoy it. Become a part of Wakanda … forever.