Black Panther is one of those films is going to take a while before it can really be examined critically in a way that separates it from its point and time in history. Not unlike the deep and profound impact that Wonder Woman has had on the female audience, this one too will almost certainly be a touchstone in genre films. It’s a good film, definitely — the cast is astonishingly solid all the way across the board. It’s a Marvel character origin story film whose villains aren’t instantly forgettable. It’s got surrounding characters that aren’t just the briefest of shallow sketches. In short, it’s possibly the best origin film to have come out of the MCU since Iron Man.
This is a very different tone of film than many other MCU entries — one the lightest side you’ve got Ant-Man, and on the darker you’ve got Winter Soldier. Black Panther is far more towards the dark side than the light. There’s some levity, but it’s used sparingly. Relative newcomer Ryan Coogler had come into Black Panther with a short but powerful resume, having written and directed Fruitvale Station and the latest Rocky installment, Creed. He reprises his dual roles here with Black Panther and there’s so many solid aspects around this film that it really does set it apart. His writing for Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa / Black Panther is good, but it turns out that the story isn’t just about him. The film plot is driven around him, but it’s the stories of the myriad characters around him are just as interesting, and in some cases even more so, than T’Challa’s.
As MCU watchers will likely recall — T’Challa’s father King T’Chaka (played by John Kani) was killed by an explosion in Captain America: Civil War. Black Panther picks up shortly after those events with his returning to his home country of Wakada to claim the crown. For the uninitiated, Wakanda is a central African nation which thousands of years earlier was the site of a large meteorite strike. The meteorite was composed primarily of vibranium, which is a super-strong metal and has a range of secondary effects and characteristics. The Wakandans used the metals to develop ultra-advanced technology and civilization. The country is considered by the outside world is a rather limited third-world African agricultural kingdom, but in reality a projection dome hides cities that would give Kandor a run for its money.
The country has always kept its secrets hidden, to prevent the outside world from coming in to try to take their resources, weaponry, and technology. However, an arms dealer, Klaue (played to the hilt by Andy Serkis), has managed to discover its location and stolen some of the metal — and now T’Challa is going to lead a mission to try to recover it. Again, he’s great in his role — but who pulls the attention in most of the scenes they’re in are the women surrounding him. Lupita Nyong’o plays T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia. She found her calling and left Wakanda to become a spy; Danai Gurira as General Okoya, leader of Wakanda’s elite royal guards, The Dora Milaje; Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s brilliant younger sister, Shuri.
Each one of them is a terrific character in their own right, with their own personal motivations, foibles, and loyalties. Shuri could easily give Tony Stark stiff competition for best inventor and scientist. During a moment of conflict, Okoya, reminds everyone that she serves the throne of Wakanda, regardless of who sits on it. Just as with Mad Max and Furiosa, the story would have played out just fine in the end even without Max, and with these characters other than T’Challa, they would similarly probably be able to work things out on their own — he just happens to function as a nexus in their social sphere.
It’s also somewhat refreshing that there’s effectively zero cameos (Stan Lee‘s requisite appearance notwithstanding) from the other MCU films. There’s no random appearance by a wayward Avenger to pull the focus away from this being an honest self-contained story. Really, it’s amazing, it’s a MCU entry that isn’t somehow dependent on the fallout from the New York battle from the first Avengers movie.
It’s refreshing, it’s different — and definitely in a good way.
Note that there are two during-credits scenes, one in the middle, and another at the very end of the credits.
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