Early on in Black Panther the title character’s resident tech genius and sassy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) justifies improving his gear by saying “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This attitude seems to be the prevailing view behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, as the blockbuster studio continues to demonstrate willingness to fit new voices and styles into their well-established franchise. For the eighteenth film in the series, director Ryan Coogler has brought together a primarily black cast and infused the fictional country of Wakanda with aspects of different African cultures to infuse Black Panther with a different energy while still retaining the action, special effects, and humour of its predecessors.
After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa, inheriting the title of King after the death of his father. T’Challa spent much of Civil War on a revenge-quest so his first solo outing gave Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole an interesting opportunity to flesh his character out and expand his personality, but he still ends up feeling a bit flat. It’s nothing to do with Boseman’s performance, who brings ample amounts of charisma and power to the role, and more to do with how he keeps getting upstaged by his more interesting co-stars. Letitia Wright steals all the dialogue scenes as his teen-prodigy gadgeteer, bringing boundless enthusiasm to every creation she makes like a mix between James Bond’s Q and a YouTube star. Meanwhile the focus of the action scenes is quickly stolen by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s personal bodyguards and a fighter every bit as capable as the Black Panther himself without the need for the mystical herb that gives him super strength and agility. It’s noteworthy that both of these characters are women, as Black Panther is chock full of strong, intelligent, and badass women of colour without feeling the need to draw attention to it. It’s a welcome example of how times are changing, and we’re getting some fantastic characters out of it. Poor Martin Freeman ends up looking particularly out of place for much of the film as the Everett K. Ross, the required outsider who can have Wakandan customs explained to himself (and by extension the audience), but will surely help bring the characters of Black Panther into the superhero free-for-all that will be the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars.
Excepting Ross’s role and a few scenes with Age of Ultron’s Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkins), Black Panther manages to keep its story fairly self-contained against the broader Marvel Universe. The villain, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, keeps his vendetta primarily to Wakanda and T’Challa himself, even if the conflict does naturally increase to something world threatening to justify an appropriately explosive final battle. Killmonger stands out against other Marvel villains for having a motive beyond simple “Take over/Destroy the World”, instead wanting to hold Wakanda accountable for its wealth and technological advances while other African countries languish in poverty and black people around the world are mistreated. In a rarity for superhero films I actually found myself agreeing with the villain at times, and I commend Black Panther for not being afraid to tackle uncomfortable questions and allowing both sides of the argument to make valid points. Obviously they still have to keep Killmonger clearly in the antagonist role to foster T’Challa’s growth and justify a final fight between the two, but thanks to Jordan’s committed performance and the writing of his character there is a genuine sense of pathos around him that hasn’t been seen in many other Marvel villains.
Ryan Coogler, fresh off the brilliant Rocky reinvention Creed, keeps Black Panther filled to the brim with both style and African influences. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack mixes tribal drums, hip-hop hooks, and the typical superhero fanfare, which along with Kendrick Lamar’s original songs had me enjoying the music so much I’d forget to pay attention to what was happening on screen. While the fight sequences may lack the same visceral punch the boxing matches in Creed had, cinematographer Rachel Morrison has the camera flowing around the characters in slow motion as they gracefully perform extravagant stunts like running up buildings and whirling through car wrecks. These stylistic touches serve to distinguish Black Panther from other Marvel pictures on the surface, but at its core it does still fit within the Marvel mould. I’d love to play all of the MCU films at the same time and see how many of them simultaneously hit certain emotional beats. Yes, it’s basic story structure, but Marvel has been following the classic three-act structure so religiously that you could basically set your watch by when the film hits its darkest moment. For all the Black Panther does different it’s clear there are some things Marvel is unwilling to change, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers.
Black Panther isn’t the first superhero movie to have a black lead, not even the first based on a character from Marvel comics (I haven’t forgotten you, Blade), but it’s undoubtedly a milestone in mainstream cinema to have a film that celebrates black culture so openly. It also demonstrates why these things are worth celebrating, as when you get different voices like Coogler or Thor: Ragnarok’s Taikia Waititi to handle blockbuster films you get different types of blockbusters. It may have taken Marvel a while to figure that out, but if they’re able to keep their films feeling this fresh after 10 years then it’s a lesson well learned.