Let us for the moment accept the premise that movies based on comic books are the New Normal. For the short term at least, the most hotly anticipated (and cash-flow-generating) big-screen release in any given year is going to be a product emanating from the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), with DC huffing and puffing to keep up.
This trend makes the average 18-to-25 male moviegoer happy enough, but presents challenges to audiences who didn’t grow up deeply immersed in the MCU. The Avengers, X-Men and its myriad other denizens are long-established entities with twisty (and sometimes-contradictory) histories, unfamiliarity with which can make it a little daunting for newbies to dip a toe into the flow once or twice a year. The bad news – really, the only bit of bad news – about Black Panther is that, if you’re reading this review because you weren’t already motivated to see it on opening weekend, then you’re likely to have some trouble following most of the characters’ faux-Xhosa names. Seeing some of them in print before entering the theater might help a little.
The good news is that Black Panther’s payoffs as a cinematic experience are well-worth the learning curve. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), this flick is much more than Marvel’s first-quarter “tentpole” – though it certainly succeeds in delivering pretty much everything that a superhero fan of any demographic could wish. It’s also a cultural milestone that is going to change audiences’ expectations of Hollywood with regard to inclusiveness.
Much has already been written about how meaningful it is to people of color to be able to see role models onscreen who look like them. Black Panther takes us several steps farther than that: Not only are we seeing heroes with dark skin, but also an entire cultural milieu in which having dark skin is a given, inhabited by imperfect heroes, complex villains, people with conflicted loyalties and a broad range of human traits in between. The title character, a young king named T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) whose mantle of leadership comes with attendant superpowers, is forced to come to terms with the fallout from a painful decision that his father had secretly made long ago, and to rethink his homeland’s traditional policies of isolationism. His rival, known as Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), is no mere “final boss” or two-dimensional supervillain bent on world domination, but a wounded man whose motivations are relatable and whose ideological arguments are designed to sway our sympathies, however briefly.
The MCU’s fictional nation of Wakanda is a deep dive into how a Central African kingdom might have developed had it been blessed with an ultra-rare, ultra-useful mineral resource that somehow managed to escape colonial exploitation. Here we glimpse a technologically Utopian, African-identified world that is diverse, layered and nuanced, where people are just people, confronted with the same sorts of difficult choices among flawed options that have fueled good drama since the dawn of human storytelling. This should not be revolutionary for contemporary big-budget mass media, but it is.
There are, of course, the usual clueless, empathy-impaired white folks posting on social media that they’re boycotting this movie because they “can’t relate” to the characters (as if nonwhite American consumers ever had such luxury of choice). This is, of course, rubbish: A good story is a good story, and Black Panther is by no stretch of the imagination a movie “just for black people.” In fact, this reviewer found it more dazzlingly empowering as a white woman than last year’s Wonder Woman was supposed to be. The female side of Black Panther’s cast is resplendently kickass and dramatically crucial, reminding us that one of the most appealing things about the sci-fi/fantasy genre is that it doesn’t require replication of “the way things have always been” in terms of social roles.
The ever-luminous Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, T’Challa’s on-again, off-again love interest, as a quietly determined undercover operative whose vision of a new role for Wakanda in the wider world fuels the king’s struggle with the meaning of kingship. Danai Gurira – adored by The Walking Dead fans for her tenure as the formidable Michonne – deftly scoops up a new following here with her fierce portrayal of Okoye: T’Challa’s chief of intelligence, general of his all-female personal guard, the Dora Milaje, and best one-on-one battler we’ve seen onscreen in ages. Most of all, I fell for relative newcomer Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri: the Q to his 007 and Wakanda’s smartest denizen. She steals every scene she’s in, and not simply because she gets the wittiest lines; it’s a terrifically engaging performance.
MCU followers and Martin Freeman fans in general will be pleased to see more development of the character of Agent Ross, that CIA guy who sometimes abets the Avengers but more often gets in their way. In Black Panther he is tasked with delivering more than one actor’s share of expository blather about geopolitics, but is compensated with some moments that exercise Freeman’s gift for schlimazel comedy. The only other significant white character, amoral international arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, is played with over-the-top scenery-chewing glee by Andy Serkis.
Other key cast members include the great Forest Whitaker as the high shaman Zuri, Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s friend (and war rhino-trainer) W’Kabi, Angela Bassett as the Queen Mother Ramonda and Winston Duke as M’Baku, leader of the uncooperative neighboring Jabari tribe. It’s a stellar lineup across the board – I haven’t even gotten into how riveting Jordan is, or how subtle Boseman’s grappling with his moral quandaries.
Just go see this movie. Blow off its sociopolitical ramifications if you feel that you really must. Quash your slight disappointment with the CGI (Peter Jackson’s Rivendell had far more realistic-looking spectacular waterfalls than Wakanda, alas). Whether as an avatar of the irrepressible zeitgeist of a changing world or just a rip-roaring good adventure tale with compelling characters, Black Panther simply insists on getting its claws under your skin. Don’t fight it; you will surely lose.