9.5 out of 10
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
Directed by Ryan Coogler
So we come to the third act of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the stakes that have been steadily rising over the course of ten years begin to come to fruition, and where storylines and characters that we have come to care for begin to reach their endgames. Yes, I’m certain there will be more movies and stories to come, especially since the Fox/Disney merger (if it happens) opens up even more characters and storylines. But one must look back with admiration at the sheer success and ambition of this longform storytelling, which really hasn’t been done before, not to this scale.
Each building block, at this point, is essential to the scope of what has previously been told and the story yet to come. So when you talk about these films, you have to look at them in multiple levels – on how well the movie succeeds on its own, and how well it fits into the larger story. Black Panther succeeds in both in spectacular fashion, but while it stands on its own exceptionally well, what it means for the larger MCU is full of potential and exciting possibilities. In short, everyone gets to play in this sandbox from here on out. We’re going to be seeing films of all kinds and genres within this shared universe, and more so than any of the other MCU films, Black Panther feels like an invitation for everyone to take part – to tell stories from unique perspectives and world views, and to bring cultural, ideological, and social ideals to these comic book heroes. Everyone gets to tell their story, and there is nothing more empowering than to have an audience to tell their stories to.
But before anyone gets the idea that Black Panther is an “agenda” movie – yes, it has something to say, but it says it so perfectly, giving us pure entertainment, a rousing, thrilling action-adventure film that spans the globe, full of characters to cheer for, bad guys to hiss at, and action sequences galore. As far as world-building goes, this is a huge step for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Wakanda in all its splendor is a fine addition to the MCU, and I hope that this film is successful enough that we are able to dive deeply into that land in subsequent adventures. Wakanda tech is far more advanced than even Tony Stark’s designs; the vibranium deep underneath the Wakandan earth has provided the land with a seemingly limitless source of energy and precious metal. It even has mutated the plant and animal life there – the bulb from the rare flower that gives T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) his power seems infused with vibranium energy. The recent death of T’Challa’s father T’Chaka (in Captain America: Civil War) means that T’Challa will now take up the kingship of Wakanda and the ancient mantle of the Black Panther.
But Wakanda isn’t the paradise that it appears to be. There is strife among the tribes, and T’Challa’s kingship isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. Plus, there is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a longtime enemy of Wakanda ever since he stole several tons of vibranium several years ago and caused the death of W’Kabi’s (Daniel Kaluuya) father, a tribal leader. W’Kabi wants Klaue killed or captured, and is relying on T’Challa’s promise to make that happen.
Enter Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American who seems to share a mysterious link with Wakanda. T’Challa must discover what Killmonger’s agenda is, with the help of his technologically-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his loyal bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), and loyal Wakandan spy (and former girlfriend) Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). But Killmonger proves to be T’Challa’ greatest challenge yet – not only physically, but morally and spiritually as well. Killmonger has a legitimate beef, and while his tactics are brutal, he also has a deep anger that may be justified. For centuries, Wakanda has ignored the rest of the world, which threatens to come back on the country with a vengeance.
Where to start on why Black Panther is simply one of the best Marvel Cinematic Universe entries yet? Technically, this is one of the best-looking films of the MCU, with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison giving everything a grand scale and scope that gives Black Panther an epic feel. This is no small story – there are car chases, battles, and action setpieces that rank as some of the best in the MCU so far. One chase through the streets of Busan, South Korea is an all-timer. The score by Ludwig Göransson (in his third collaboration with Ryan Coogler) is full of earned bombast and triumph, and delivers one of the finest scores of the MCU so far. That’s not even adding the terrific songs by Kendrick Lamar. Each action sequence is shot and edited well, with real energy and kinetic charge. The final act of Black Panther is so expertly edited together, full of impact, that the movie becomes a sheer visceral thrill to watch.
Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script is raucous, funny, and yet deeply emotional. As Black Panther explores the social, familial, and political dynamics of Wakanda, Coogler and Cole build their world intricately and with grace. But they also do not forget to fill their characters with real agency and drive. I adore how a good third of Black Panther turns into a James Bond film, complete with gadgets, tuxedos, and gunfights. As director, Ryan Coogler not only is effective with the major action sequences that these movies are known for, but he also knows how to give us intimate moments of conflict and emotion. He gets performances that feel genuine and rich, giving us heroes and villains that are more complicated than the story would suggest.
Chadwick Boseman is terrific as T’Challa, filled with responsibility for his people, mourning the loss of his father, and yet sometimes blinded that he sometimes fails to see the bigger picture, a blindness that Erik Killmonger exploits. But even Boseman knows to step aside for the women of Black Panther, who give the movie such charge and thrills that I would happily see a movie about them alone. I love Letitia Wright’s Shuri, who strains from the bonds of tradition, and also is a brilliant, playful scientist. Another fun James Bond moment is when Shuri, the Wakandan Q, shows off her many inventions and gadgets to T’Challa. Okoye, the head guard of T’Challa’s protection, is a legitimate mighty warrior, and the action scenes that Danai Gurira gets are a blast to watch. Lupita Nyong’o is just as entertaining as Nakia, who wants to help Wakanda in the best way she can as a spy, but is not ready to enter into a serious relationship with T’Challa, and Boseman and Nyong’o have a nice chemistry and banter together.
But if there is a Most Valuable Player in Black Panther, it is Michael B. Jordan’s fantastic work as Erik Killmonger, who is in very close running with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as the best villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jordan fills Killmonger with righteous rage and passion. When the truth of Killmonger’s past is revealed, his fury feels vindicated. Even more, Killmonger sees clearly where T’Challa does not – that years of isolation and ignoring the pleas of the outside world have made Wakanda almost complicit in its own fall. When Killmonger is truly unleashed, the years of pain and hate come through, and Jordan makes you sympathize with him even as he does deplorable, abhorrent acts. Because, on some level, Killmonger is right.
Killmonger’s motives may be pure comic book, but it is the social and racial context in those motives that gives Black Panther much of its power. More than any other film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther addresses the world today in ways that, while not distracting from the action and adventure, fills the movie with deeper meaning and moral weight. Black Panther assures us that this is a world worth fighting for, and how we choose to bring the battle to the forces of evil makes all the difference. T’Challa wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, keeping his kingdom safe from outside dangers that would threaten Wakanda. But the extremes of that protection means that Wakanda will never share their advances with the rest of the world, and when so many struggle to thrive and survive, Wakanda’s isolation becomes selfish and wrong. Killmonger wants to use Wakanda’s technology to burn it all down, but T’Challa’s refusal to engage with a world that needs him may, in fact, be worse.
And it is here that the message of Black Panther shines through. While this is one of the most entertaining films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther also means something. To be a part of this world, you must take part in the world – through the pain, through the anger, through the hate – because, in the end, the love that we share makes it worth it. Ryan Coogler could have made just a simple action-adventure movie, and that would have been fine. But he’s too great a filmmaker to simply give us another textbook comic book movie. There is real power, hope, and beauty in Black Panther, and you get to take that with you when you leave, and you get to use it to make your own world better. I close my eyes, and I can see a vast backyard, where kids of all colors, backgrounds, and creeds play together, cheering their heroes and telling their own stories. That is the place that this movie takes me, and I want to live there forever. As the song says, tonight all the stars are closer. Black Panther is a complete triumph.