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“I have seen gods fly. I have seen men build weapons that I couldn’t even imagine. I have seen aliens drop from the sky. But I have never seen anything like this.” So mutters astonished C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) as he first sets eyes on the shrouded African country of Wakanda, a veritable El Dorado that mined a meteorite’s worth of vibranium to become the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, and the host country for the best Marvel movie so far, by far. He speaks for us all.
Nobody has ever seen anything like “Black Panther” — not just an entire civilization built from the metal stuff inside Captain America’s shield, and not even just a massive superhero movie populated almost entirely by black people, but also a Marvel film that actually feels like it takes place in the real world.
Over the course of three phases, 11 years, and 18 installments, Marvel has taken us everywhere from the Norse kingdom of Asgard, to a living planet called Ego, and a literally time-less void known as the Dark Dimension. And yet, those fantastical adventures are virtually indistinguishable from the episodes that are (mostly) set on Earth. Despite the fact that “Ant-Man” is rooted in San Francisco, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is an ode to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, and “The Avengers” climaxes with a “Battle of New York” that looks curiously like Cleveland, all of these films still feel like glimpses into a parallel universe made out of plastic — a bizarro alternate timeline (complete with its own 9/11) where everyone has been reverse-engineered from their own action figures.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven itself to be exactly that, a self-contained snow globe that’s wrapped in spandex and lined with money. It has little sense of history beyond that which it’s created for itself; the moral imperatives that divide the Avengers tend to exist in a vacuum, while the colonialist undertones rumbling beneath “Thor: Ragnarok” are easy to miss for those who haven’t been conditioned to feel them.
“Black Panther” is different. It’s the first one of these films that flows with a genuine sense of culture and identity, memory and musicality. It’s the first one of these films that doesn’t merely reckon with power and subjugation in the abstract, but also gives those ideas actual weight by grafting them onto specific bodies and confronting the historical ways in which they’ve shaped our universe. Last, but certainly not least, it’s also the first black superhero movie since the dawn of the genre’s seemingly endless golden age (or at least since that one where Will Smith hurled a giant whale at a bunch of innocent sailors).
As such, it was always going to be a landmark moment for representation, but writer-director Ryan Coogler doesn’t leave it at that. “Black Panther” might be the most visually striking chapter of this series, but its success isn’t just a matter of optics; its use of color is never simply cosmetic. An unabashed and mega-budgeted work of Afro-futurism, this multiplex entertainment leverages an imagined reality to broadly reflect upon the actual reality of the black experience(s). In making a movie that so lucidly allows one group of people to see themselves on screen, Coogler has created the first Marvel movie in which anyone can see themselves on screen. That’s an accomplishment all viewers can appreciate — one that gives new depth to the overarching themes of the MCU, finally grounding this franchise with the kind of stakes that it needs to support its cosmic scale.
“Black Panther” begins with a brief history of Wakanda, an outwardly unremarkable place located somewhere along the border between Kenya and Nambia. But what looks like a “shithole country” is actually a thriving society that’s been overlooked by the colonialist hegemony responsible for crippling so many of its neighbors; the people of Wakanda have protected their natural resources and native cultures by making it seem as though they don’t have much of either. When prince T’Challa (a stoic, nuanced Chadwick Boseman) returns home to mourn his father (killed in “Captain America: Civil War”) and ascend the throne, he’s inclined to keep tradition, even though he recognizes that the world is changing.
It’s easy to understand why he would fight for Wakanda to stay the same: The place is absolutely incredible. Even in 2D, it pops right off the screen. Despite perilously under-lighting a few nighttime sequences, cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots the country so full of life that it’s genuinely hard to believe she didn’t film a single frame of it in Africa (for a movie that’s full of sloppy CG, the environmental green screen work is astonishing). From its rolling plains and their cartoonish war rhinos(!) to its bustling marketplace and Day-Glo dream skies, Wakanda is almost as well-realized as the five tribes of people who inhabit it.
This is a story in which almost every character feels as though they continue to exist off-screen. That’s true of the newly widowed Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who frets over the future of Wakanda in a 3D-printed, Zulu-inspired, future-chic wardrobe. It’s true of Shuri (Letitia Wright), the brilliant young princess who invents all of the country’s vibranium-driven technology and makes you forget all about Tony Stark. And Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s warrior ex, who tells her king the honest truth and leads Wakanda’s awesomely badass all-female special forces, the Dora Milaje. And Okoye (Danai Gurira), the most awesomely badass of them all, who uses her wig as a weapon before launching into the one brief flurry of fight choreography so clean it could almost sneak into “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya!), a terse defender with conflicting desires.
These are people who have never been oppressed, in large part because good luck with that.
Most of all — in a bonafide Marvel rarity — it’s true of the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (but definitely not his girlfriend, who doesn’t even get to deliver a single line of dialogue before she’s disappeared forever). Played by Michael B. Jordan in a swaggering performance that burns with the same fire he and Coogler lit in “Creed,” Erik is an American-raised Wakandan exile who kills for a living and lives for the chance to avenge the historic and ongoing wrongs that have been brought to bear against black people across the world. He resents the fact that Wakanda has removed itself from the narrative of slavery and imperialism, and he wants to use the nation’s power to flip that script in the most violent ways. (“I’ma burn it all!”) This is a guy who’s literally covered himself in death, patterning his body with a new keloid scar for every life he’s taken.
And yet: T’Challah recognizes his anger. Boseman’s face softens with sympathy when this stranger from the Oakland projects shows up to claim the throne. Black Panther understands where Killmonger is coming from, if only to a certain extent, and it’s fascinating to watch a film of this size casually reckon with (or even merely allude to the existence of) the complex dynamic between Africans and their extended diaspora. The villain speaks in the language of slaves and oppressors, the hero wants to rewrite those roles from scratch, and the friction between their differing ideas of power is manifest through character-driven conflict that feels rooted to the ground they’re fighting over. It doesn’t matter that you know who wins in the end, or that the movie seldom deviates from its staid “Macbeth” structure, because being Black Panther and becoming Black Panther are two very different things.
But even though there are no giant lasers shooting from the sky, no armies of anonymous humanoid lizards running through the streets — even though none of these people seem to know who Thanos is, let alone waste their time talking about how a lazy purple space clown is on his way to Earth or whatever — the Marvel brand is still strong with this one. That’s both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, the film’s cultural currency is largely derived from the fact that it’s taking a seat at one of the world’s most exclusive tables; “Black Panther” is such a game-changer for black representation in part because it’s speaking in the hyper-codified language of the world’s biggest movie franchise. If it sometimes feels like the movie is too good to bother with the usual bullshit (e.g. a Stan Lee cameo), those signature Marvel touches help indicate to underserved black audiences that all of this — this universal language — belongs to them, too.
On the other hand, it means that “Black Panther” has to deal with the house style. To a certain extent, Coogler is able to overcome the blandness that comes with the territory, leaning on the specificity of Wakandan culture to overcome some of these movies’ usual weaknesses. The ecstatic costumes and lush cinematography are both impressive, but the film’s music is the real miracle here. A far cry from the profoundly generic slop that’s been used to score the previous Marvel stuff, Ludwig Göransson delivers a singular piece of work. Weaving South African and Senegalese drumming into the base of his compositions, Göransson creates a prickly, percussive sound that rumbles with anxiety and power. And then, just to rub it in, the film tops that off with a handful of original tracks from Kendrick Lamar and his pals. “Infinity War” might have hundreds of superheroes, but it won’t have that.
And then there are the action scenes. A longtime issue for the MCU, where the preference for plastic cartoon violence tends to result in numbing flurries of bad CG, and “Black Panther” only makes it worse. Given the gravitas of Coogler’s storytelling, and the visceral physicality that he brought to the boxing scenes in “Creed,” this comes as a very unpleasant surprise. It’s not just that the choreography in “Black Panther” lacks coherence, but also that every fight scene is undone by awful CG. From a weightless car chase in South Korea (rescued by a few nice character moments) to a climactic brawl that looks like it was rendered on a Nintendo 64, the lifeless and glaringly fake action work is more galling than usual because everything else in this movie feels so believable.
But there is more that unites us than divides us, more about “Black Panther” that works than doesn’t. Even at its most artificial, this is still a thrilling, well-realized story of self-determination, told with real purpose and rare confidence. You believe in T’Challa, you believe in Wakanda, and you believe — maybe for the first time — that the MCU actually matters. It’s hard for a good movie to survive that kind of studio process, just as it’s hard for a good man to be king. Hard, but apparently not impossible.
“Black Panther” opens in theaters on February 16th.