Black Panther is so freaking cool.
Captain America: Civil War was one of my favorite movies of 2016, and one of my favorite things about it was Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, aka Black Panther, making his big-screen debut. I had heard of the character but didn’t know much about him until I saw Civil War, and the movie’s portrayal of him was so good that I immediately wanted to learn more about him.
I’ve since read some Black Panther comics and enjoyed them a lot, and like many people I had been eagerly anticipating Black Panther’s first solo movie. The hype leading up to the film’s release was huge, and it didn’t disappoint. Black Panther is one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is that they tend to be formulaic. It’s hard to dispute this, since many superhero films do tend to share similar story elements. This doesn’t bother me because I love superhero movies, but I can see why some people call them formulaic.
Black Panther is one of the least formulaic films in the MCU, partly because it’s central character is the exact opposite of formulaic.
Black Panther made his first appearance in an issue of the Fantastic Four in 1966 and was the first African superhero in mainstream American comics. He is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the only source of the ultra-valuable metal vibranium. Vibranium has allowed Wakanda to create technology far more advanced than anything in the rest of the world. Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced country in the world in the Marvel universe, and I couldn’t wait to see it portrayed onscreen.
The new movie takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka, T’Challa returns home to Wakanda to become the new king. The title of Black Panther is hereditary and passed down from generation to generation, and T’Challa is the current Black Panther, who serves as the protector of Wakanda. The Black Panther is entitled to use the sacred heart-shaped herbs, which give him superhuman strength and reflexes.
I love the way the movie portrays Wakanda. It looks amazing. The sets, special effects, and costumes are top-notch and make Wakanda feel vibrant and alive. It’s the kind of place you want to visit as soon as the movie is over. We meet T’Challa’s inner circle, most of which are badass women. These include Okoye (played by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan special forces (described by one character early in the film as “Grace Jones-looking chicks”). There’s also Nakia, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, an undercover spy and former Dora Milaje member who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and his younger sister, teenage Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is the smartest person in Wakanda and keeps T’Challa supplied with cutting-edge vibranium tech.
All these characters are great, as are the actors who portray them. The cast also includes Forest Whitaker (another Oscar winner) and recent Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Shuri is my favorite character in the movie. She’s just great. She’s lively and smart and funny, and gets some of the movie’s best lines. The great thing about these characters is that they feel like a family. They don’t exist just to fill certain roles in the story, like love interest or comic relief or whatever. They love and support one another, and the actors have great chemistry. Martin Freeman is also very likable as a CIA agent who gets to be the fish-out-of-water in Wakanda.
And oh, yes. Of course, there has to be a bad guy. And this one is a doozy. He goes by the name Erik Killmonger, and with a name like that you know he’s serious. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan and is one of the MCU’s best and most well-rounded villains. The extraordinary thing about Killmonger is that you can understand his point of view. He’s the bad guy, but he’s the furthest thing from two-dimensional. Another common criticism of MCU movies is that the villains tend to be forgettable, although there are notable exceptions. Killmonger belongs firmly in the “exception” category.
Killmonger first appeared in 1973 in a seminal story arc called Panther’s Rage. The entire Panther’s Rage story is available in a single paperback, and if you want to get into Black Panther comics and are wondering where to start, Panther’s Rage is the perfect entry point. It’s not perfect, since writer Don McGregor’s captions and dialogue tend to be overstuffed and can be long-winded, but the artwork is fantastic and the stories and characters are socially and emotionally resonant. Also, the story of Panther’s Rage was very influential on the story of the film and the portrayal of the characters. There’s even a part in the book where Killmonger kicks T’Challa off a waterfall, which probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen the movie.
Seriously, read Panther’s Rage. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It tells a serious story that is still relevant today, while also delivering great moments of over-the-top comic book action. There’s a scene where T’Challa rides a pterodactyl and jumps off its back to kick a bad guy in the face while the bad guy is in the process of shooting an explosive arrow at him which then hits the pterodactyl, which then blows up. Panther’s Rage is a serious and contemplative story, but don’t think it gets too serious because it still features an exploding pterodactyl.
The movie is similar in the way it tells a serious and meaningful story while still delivering on the action, as well as goofy comic book elements. For example, Andy “Gollum” Serkis plays a character named Ulysses Klaue (simply called Klaw in the comics, in which he is a recurring Black Panther nemesis). Serkis previously played the character in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he lost an arm. Klaue has since replaced that arm with a cybernetic attachment that turns into a laser cannon that can flip cars and blow holes in walls and that sort of thing. Serkis has fun hamming it up and speaking with an over-the-top South African accent, but Killmonger is the main villain, make no mistake.
And Michael B. Jordan plays him extremely well. He’s a badass who is T’Challa’s equal in terms of physical strength and mental cunning, which makes the two very evenly-matched. He’s also had a tough upbringing and a genuine beef with T’Challa. I won’t spoil the details, but Killmonger’s gripe with T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda makes a lot of sense. It makes so much sense in fact that it even leads T’Challa to question himself, and to wonder if maybe Killmonger does have a point. The central conflict of the film is much more nuanced than many other superhero movies, and the line between good guy and bad guy gets blurred in a way that is uncommon to big-budget blockbusters.
Director Ryan Coogler is only 31 years old, and Black Panther is only his third film. He’s clearly a talent to watch and his previous two films were also critically acclaimed (and Michael B. Jordan starred in both of them, so he and Coogler clearly have a well-established rapport). He has deftly crafted a blockbuster that is fun and entertaining, while also culturally relevant and thought-provoking. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and I’m super happy that the film is already a massive success. It deserves to be.