Though it may be obvious, one point about Black Panther can’t be overstated: This Marvel Comics movie is the first time a black filmmaker has been allowed to direct a movie of this type, a big, opulent, effects-heavy fantasy-adventure blockbuster for the popcorn crowd. The current explosion of African-American filmmaking has given us an incredibly diverse array of great movies, but not that. To see Black Panther is to feel the ground shifting, for this is more than just a really good action film about a black superhero. It’s a film where blackness is central to all the movie’s accomplishments. What a thrill that turns out to be.
For all the heavyweight actors here, the starring turn belongs to Wakanda, the fictitious Central African nation created for the comic books that inspired this film. Protected from the predations of European colonizers, the place is secretly the world’s most technologically advanced nation while pretending to the outside world to be what our idiot president would call a “shithole” country. What does that look like? Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and his creative team answer with gleaming skyscrapers in the shape of circular mud huts, a regional chief’s mountain aerie jutting out from an outcropping, and soldiers whose spears dispense energy bolts and whose kente-print robes conceal force shields. Among this movie’s stunningly beautiful vistas is a coronation sequence taking place in front of a giant rock formation, where nobles on the scene stand on the ledges wearing robes of every color. We haven’t seen anything like this film’s futuristic and solidly African aesthetic, and it gives us compelling details in all corners of the frame. Realizing this fictional place so fully and making it feel like part of our world is the hallmark of the best science-fiction. This extraordinary feat of imagination is the equal of anything done by Steven Spielberg or Guillermo del Toro.
This would recommend the movie on its own, but we are in a superhero film, so superhero stuff happens, particularly in an enviably fluid action sequence in a high-end South Korean gambling den, as well as a huge climactic battle in front of Wakanda’s royal palace. Not all is well in this African utopia, and no sooner is Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) crowned king than his country’s secrets come home to roost in the person of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a descendant of disgraced Wakandan royalty who’s been nursing a grudge in exile in America, as well as honing his fighting skills as a U.S. Navy SEAL. He wants the throne, and he’s not the only one who thinks Wakanda’s hoarded treasures could help oppressed black people outside the country’s borders.
In a sense, this makes the movie of a piece with Marvel’s other films, many of which discuss what powerful people owe the powerless. That gains a sharper edge, though, when the cast is full of black characters. Killmonger’s dad (Sterling K. Brown) betrays his country because he’s outraged about the racial inequities he sees while living in Coogler’s native Oakland. T’Challa’s own ex-girlfriend and chief field operative (Lupita Nyong’o) is using Wakandan tech to free sex slaves in Nigeria. To go with all the visual splendor and world-building, the script offers up food for thought about what a powerful country owes the rest of the world.
Something that could get lost here: The women have more to do in this movie than in Marvel’s other superhero flicks. Those familiar with the comic books know about Wakanda’s all-female cadre of elite soldiers called the Dora Milaje, but nevertheless we’re given very different supporting performances from Nyong’o as a spy who fights with two large metal rings, Danai Gurira as the Dora’s spear-twirling chief, and Letitia Wright as the king’s sister and head of spy and weapons tech. Opposite them, Jordan’s bubbling anger serves him well in a villainous role, and Andy Serkis steals some scenes as a boorish white South African arms dealer who knows about Wakanda. They all swirl around Boseman, whose calm authority centers the film as this king tries to figure out the best direction amid his country’s crisis.
If there’s a limit to what Ryan Coogler can do, we haven’t seen it yet. Still, the achievement of Black Panther is about more than just one man. It feels like a whole other universe of storytelling possibilities becoming visible to us, with the familiar superhero genre becoming radically, exhilaratingly new simply by adopting a viewpoint other than the white male one we’re used to. The results are astonishing.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic books. Rated PG-13.