Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke
Black Panther is a marvel of a movie. Apologies for that lame pun but I couldn’t resist. Director Ryan Coogler pulls off a remarkable feat – he gives us a superhero movie with spaceships, shiny futuristic landscapes and big battles. Yet he manages to make it real. Black Panther is the first Marvel movie to have this level of heft, weight and seriousness. The film is rooted in history and culture but it also delivers the adrenaline rush that we want. And did I mention the charismatic villain – Michael B. Jordan, playing Erik Killmonger, an exile hungry to avenge his people?
The story mostly takes place in the African kingdom of Wakanda. Outsiders see Wakanda as a poverty-ridden, Third World country but in fact, it is the most technologically advanced nation on earth. The Wakandans have Vibranium, the material in Captain America’s shield. Their brilliant princess Shuri uses it to create cutting-edge technology. They have an all-female special forces called the Dora Milaje. And they have the newly crowned king T-Challa, also known as the Black Panther. T-Challa is struggling to find his footing when a contender to the throne – Killmonger – arrives and disrupts the peace.
What gives this story power is that the conflict is character-driven. It isn’t the generic battle between good and evil, which ends with cities blowing up and the hero saving the world. It’s a battle of ideologies in which both the protagonist and antagonist learn from each other.
Chadwick Boseman isn’t as instantly dazzling as Jordan but he has the stoic fortitude that T-Challa needs. Lupita Nyong’o is terrific as T-Challa’s ex-girlfriend and spy – in a running joke, he freezes every time he sees her. The frame brims with strong actors – Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker and Martin Freeman.
Freeman is a CIA agent and one of the few white men on-screen. In one scene, he tries to say something and is summarily told: You cannot talk. It’s almost as if Coogler was getting back for the decades that African Americans have spent playing backdrops in white people dramas.
Black Panther is a landmark in terms of representation. It is the first, big-budget superhero movie to have a predominantly black cast. Coogler had a massive responsibility and he shoulders it magnificently. Black Panther speaks to the traumatic history of a continent but it also challenges every perception you might have about Africa and its people. And Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole give you enough besides politics to chew on.
I hope more superhero movies have these ambitions.