Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” is a celebration, a masterclass in world-building and a fever dream steeped in blackness. Marvel Studios has delivered on the enormous anticipation behind a film that is expected to explode at the box office. A dedication to African art, costuming and performance is what sets Coogler’s world apart from the rest of the Marvel universe. Unfortunately, being part of the Marvel franchise means repeating all the same tropes of a superhero movie. But the richness of black culture that runs through this film saves even the predictable moments. Most importantly, Coogler and the enormously talented cast ask a direct question: What would an African nation look like with all the riches of a superpower?
The film opens with an animation depicting a vibranium meteorite striking a North African plain and created Wakanda, a utopian African kingdom. King T’Chaka (John Kani) tells his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), about their nation’s infinite technology and potential to dominate the world. But the Wakandans turn insular, choosing to protect their own people and promising to never conquer other countries — a deliberate strategy that contrasts that of the colonizers who stripped African lands of its resources and people. A flashback to the streets of Oakland, Calif., introduces us to T’Challa’s uncle, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who is accused of treason by T’Chaka and then meets the necessary consequences, sparking the events that cause the fateful meeting between Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and the crown prince, T’Challa.
All this exposition serves as a mere tease for the eventual reveal of the mythical Wakandan kingdom. Boseman stars as T’Challa, the Black Panther, who is ceremoniously crowned king after his father was killed in a terrorist attack at the United Nations in “Captain America: Civil War.” The ceremony depicts the people of Wakanda in celebration, fully costumed in a wide interpretation of African tribal traditions. This scene is striking and Rachel Morrison, cinematographer and Oscar-nominated director of “Mudbound,” deserves adulation for her purposeful artistry in capturing the richness of the colorful textiles donned by the Wakandan people. The camera sweeps up a cliff filled with dancing tribespeople, drums ring in the background and, for a moment, the vision of the film’s ethos is fully realized. Comparable to Ragnarok, the mythical kingdom in Thor’s universe, the audience is transported into a completely different world. But unlike Ragnarok, Wakanda is grounded in tradition: specifically, the tradition of African dress, weaponry and music evoking simultaneously a kingdom from an imagined future and a kingdom lost.
The cast of “Black Panther” is filled with prominent and upcoming black actors. Letitia Wright stars as T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, and is bound to break out as an international star thanks to this role. Her chemistry with Boseman is the best acting on screen, and their witty banter sells their relationship. Not to be outshone, Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and a spy for Wakanda. Her conversations with T’Challa serve as quiet, interpretative moments that slow down the action of a traditional superhero movie. Unfortunately, these scenes are bogged down the trappings of the Marvel franchise. The car chases are a mess of explosions and computer-generated imagery (CGI), especially compared to our introduction to T’Challa in “Civil War,” where he takes down a motorcade in a majestic show of strength and expert gymnastics. But even in the action scenes that are typical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they are undergirded by a soundtrack with loud, hip-hop bass.
The narrative zips through several predictable beats as the audience becomes increasingly aware that our hero is not only enshrouded in literal armor but in plot armor. The only thing missing at this point is a forgettable villain, but thankfully Jordan rises to the occasion as the scorned Killmonger. Jordan’s performance is fueled by a justified anger; Killmonger was betrayed by T’Challa’s father, and he comes to Wakanda to exact his revenge. But his anger goes deeper: He represents the anguish of black people who live in a nation that has terrorized their lives throughout history. The land of Wakanda lives in harmony and wealth as billions of people with the same phenotype suffer. Killmonger seeks to correct this disparity, and watching Jordan, it’s easy to fall for his message.
Tackling colonialism, oppression, political diplomacy and sovereignty is a difficult task for any director, especially in a blockbuster, but Coogler does it with subtle expertise. The blackness of “Black Panther” takes center stage and explodes on the screen. Even when the plot lulls, we are trapped in a world that is refreshing, new and crucially, explicitly black.