Imagine an African country untouched by colonialism, completely in control of a rare mineral resource, and more technologically advanced than any other nation. That is the fictional Wakanda, a country so futuristic that it can cloak its space-age capital with a digital shield, showing only an impoverished developing society to the rest of the world.
Set to become Wakanda’s new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)—also known as the Black Panther—considers various dilemmas. Should he open up his country to the rest of the world? Should he use his special powers and high-tech, panther-like “supersuit” to punish Wakanda’s enemies? And finally, how will he ever get up the courage to express his love for Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandian spy engaged in humanitarian causes?
T’Challa must soon deal with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an unscrupulous white South African arms dealer, and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), his African-American partner in crime. What first struck me as a predictable opposition between T’Challa and Klaue soon turns into a marvelous conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger as they fight to defend pan-African culture, each in their own way.
These villains often steal the scene from the calm and collected T’Challa. Freed from the constraints of playing Gollum (Lord of the Rings) or an ape (Planet of the Apes), Andy Serkis is clearly having a ball in his role as the ruthless Klaue. Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed) burns like simmering volcano, with bursts of intellect and anger.
Strong female characters also offer an engaging balance to T’Challa, a balance usually missing in male-dominated superhero films. First of all, T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is sharp and spunky, a modern African woman unbound by tradition. She teases her brother, making him seem more human—and also offers some of the best one-liners in the film. Shuri is also the technological wizard of Wakanda, providing T’Challa with the newest gadgets in a scene that mirrors James Bond’s interactions with agent Q, his gadget supplier.
And in what seems like James Bond fashion, T’Challa enters a South Korean casino, with Nakia and bodyguard Okaye (Danai Gurira) each on an arm. But these women aren’t just arm candy, they can fight for themselves. In fact, Okaye is the most respected fighter in Wakanda. Moreover, T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) provides another strong female lead, offering to her son a voice of courage and wisdom.
As such, Black Panther both observes and upends the conventions of superhero films. Yes, cars chase each other in an exotic location and superheroes do dizzying battle in an industrial setting. But what makes Black Panther a new and refreshing addition to the Marvel comic-based universe is director Ryan Coogler’s commitment to a black cast, featuring a veritable who’s who of black actors from the U.S., Africa, and England. By contrast, white characters have important but ultimately minor roles. In addition to Serkis’ Klaue, we see Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock) as Everett K. Ross, a CIA agent who gets transported to Wakanda—and seems completely bewildered by the highly advanced society he discovers.
Black Panther is also striking for its set design, costuming, and score, all anchored in different aspects of African culture. Between the African motifs and futuristic backdrops, I had a hard time taking in all the detail and will need to see the film a second time.
The religion of Wakanda wasn’t terribly clear. Forest Whitaker plays Zuri, the country’s seer and organizer of rituals mostly bound to the memory of ancestors. As NPR’s Gene Demby noted, I often wanted to know “more”—how does Wakanda organize its schools, economy, food production, or taxes? But a two-hour movie can’t fill in a fantasy world completely.
In most superhero movies, comic moments break up the intensity of action and dramatic sequences—and Black Panther duly observes this convention. The jokes, however, have an edge, often inverting racial stereotypes. Watch for particularly clever one-liners about colonizers and cannibals.
In his debut film Fruitvale Station, Coogler challenged stereotypes in a critique of law enforcement’s racial profiling of young black men. His subsequent film Creed retold the Rocky story through the perspective of an African-American boxer and his white trainer (Sylvester Stallone), offering a strong message of hope bound in an interracial friendship.
With Black Panther, Coogler successfully critiques racism while providing exceptionally strong male and female models of black courage and determination. Yet at its heart, the film asks viewers of all races and backgrounds this question: should we isolate ourselves behind walls and keep our riches and technology to ourselves? T’Challa ultimately points to a pathway out of isolationism and tribalism, and so reveals that his true superpowers are empathy and wisdom. (Marvel/Disney)