The film opens with a visually intriguing history of Wakanda. Africa has concealed numerous hidden nations and lost lands in pop culture, mostly products of Colonial fantasies. This one boasts advanced technology blended with the style of nearby cultures. The inhabitants also guard a secret of extra-terrestrial origin. With our tour over for the moment, we find ourselves in Oakland in the 1990s, where a series of events occur that will have repercussions for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.1
All of these things lead to the introduction of T'Challa, new king of Wakanda and superhero, the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).2
Black Panther boasts a stunning, talented supporting cast. I would happily watch a movie about Letitia Wright's tech-genius Shuri and the Dora Milaje elite fighting force. Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue is hysterical-- in both senses-- every time he appears on screen. A good superhero needs good villains, and Klaue makes a great, sinister opening act. Winston Duke as M'Baku proves equally entertaining-- though he is a rival and reluctant ally in this film, rather than the villain he has often played in the comics. Of course, neither the self-centered land pirate nor the rival chief remain central for long. T'Challa's real challenge comes from a man who believes in something greater than himself: Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a man with a claim to Wakanda's throne and very different politics from T'Challa's.
The film is no allegory, but it touches on many political issues. In their plans to redress injustice, T'Challa and Killmonger loosely parallel Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. However, T'Challa also prefers an isolationist policy, dealing with his own nation rather than shaping the broader world directly. Killmonger disagrees, and many Wakandans see his point of view. Of course, Americans in 2018 might well note that the Wakandan coup replaces an eloquent and wise leader with a crude and reactionary one. These points influence the plot, but the film is less about arguing a perspective than presenting differences as a source of conflict. We're watching a comic book movie which recalls Shakespearean drama. Killmonger isn't very likeable, but he's not truly evil. He has legitimate grievances with Wakanda, a country which has chosen isolation when they might help an ailing world-- even if he believes that assistance should come at gunpoint. Killmonger also justifiably rebels against his Wakandan father, who abandoned him in Oakland, California, despite knowing a better world existed for him.
Our choices cast shadows. Our ancestors' choices cast shadows. We ignore history, public and personal, at our peril.
What many people find so remarkable is the film's success in flipping the action movie script. We have a film with a predominantly black cast, a black hero, a token white associate, and strong women: and it opened as the most successful American film (thus far) of the year. The movie deserves accolades simply for showing Hollywood that alternative approaches and non-white casts can fare just fine with audiences.
Of course, with any fantasy universe, the MCU risks becoming, as its films and shows proliferate, unwieldy. How does the world resemble ours when it has access to so many advanced technologies, from Stark's to Wakanda's, contact with aliens, and hordes of metahumans? The problem isn't the Panther's, but one the larger franchise must negotiate with its fans.
Those considerations can be set aside easily, especially given how well Black Panther stands on its own. I rank it among the top superhero movies, one that deserves its strong and positive reception.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Based on characters created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.
Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa / Black Panther
Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger
Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia
Danai Gurira as Okoye
Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross
Daniel Kaluuya as W'Kabi
Letitia Wright as Shuri
Winston Duke as M'Baku
Sterling K. Brown as N'Jobu
Angela Bassett as Ramonda
Forest Whitaker as Zuri
Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue
Florence Kasumba as Ayo
John Kani as T'Chaka
David S. Lee as Limbani
Nabiyah Be as Linda
Sydelle Noel as Dora Milaje
Marija Juliette Abney as Dora Milaje
Zola Williams as Dora Milaje
Janeshia Adams-Ginyard as Dora Milaje
Maria Hippolyte as Dora Milaje
Marie Mouroum as Dora Milaje
Jénel Stevens as Dora Milaje
Sope Aluko as Shaman
Atandwa Kani as Young T'Chaka
Ashton Tyler as Young T'Challa
Stan Lee as Thirsty Gambler
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier
1. This hidden kingdom also had its genesis in the fantasies of two Caucasian creators, but Marvel has developed it over the years, and the film delivers a researched world resplendent with Afrofuturist designs.
2. Strictly speaking, the cinematic Panther first appeared in Captain America: Civil War. The superhero came before the militant activists, but only by a month, and it's not known if T'Challa influenced the name. Certainly, the Panthers said they took the name from the broader African-American culture. It may be more likely that both took their cue, consciously or otherwise, from the 761st Tank Battalion, an African-American division that fought in the Second World War and went by the nickname of the Black Panthers.