Marvel movies get a bad rap for their cheesy dialogue, disjointed plots, and truly absurd, CGI-crowded battle scenes. But you never know when they’ll drop a gem. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one huuuge gem, and comes closer to achieving truth and realness in its story than any Marvel film has before. Fully embracing its Blackness, the film smartly toes the line between history and fantasy.
Black Panther kicks off with a short explainer on Wakanda, a secretive African nation whose mountains contain a super-powerful metal, vibranium. The substance is key to all of Wakanda’s technological advancements—it’s laced into their clothes, weapons, and vehicles. But even as vibranium enabled Wakanda to become a techtropolis, it also led the country to isolate itself.
Then the film really kicks off, beginning in 1992 Oakland, where a Wakandan spy (Sterling K. Brown) concludes his nation’s isolationist ways are allowing other African descendants to suffer from poverty, over-policing, and high incarceration rates: “Our people suffer,” he says, “because they don’t have the tools to fight back.”
Indeed, Black Panther asks, why have generations of Wakandan leadership stood by as Black people around the globe suffer? This questioning of Wakanda’s monarchy plagues T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), whose birthright is to become not only the Wakandan king, but, as Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda’s tribes.
T’Challa knows that exposing Wakanda’s technological capabilities could end his people’s lives as they know them—but he also can’t justify the choices made by previous kings.
Still, T’Challa must continue his missions, which include bringing justice to Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a maniacal South African with a shit-eating grin—and, in place of his amputated arm, a device made of stolen, weaponized vibranium.
T’Challa’s got someone else making his life harder, too: ex-soldier Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a self-professed kill machine with the scars to prove it. Killmonger’s spent his life training to avenge his father’s death and overthrow Wakanda’s monarch, with a plan to use vibranium to start the world over—this time with Blacks on top. Jordan’s impassioned monologues cut and sting, offering harsh truths about Wakandan leaders letting Black people suffer; I spent much of Black Panther trying to decide whether Killmonger was fully evil, or justified in his hellbent quest for reparations. While basically playing a poster boy for Black rage, Jordan illustrates how Killmonger is a monster of Wakanda’s own making. (Is this a reference to Black-on-Black crime, hidden inside a shiny, big-budget Marvel movie? Your call.)
Along with Jordan, the women in Black Panther are some of my favorite characters. Instead of #BlackGirlMagic, they have technology: T’Challa’s hilarious little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the genius engineer behind not only his bulletproof Black Panther suit, but various weapons and Wakanda’s transportation system. (She also has all the best lines.) As philanthropist Nakia (and T’Challa’s ex!), Lupita Nyong’o finally gets to do it all, showcasing her chops at action, humor, and romance. And, led by fierce warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), Wakanda’s all-female guard, the Dora Milaje, are nearly flawless in their Afrofuturist armor and unwavering defense of their king. It’s also worth mentioning a couple of great hair moments—most notably when Okoye complains about having to wear a “disgraceful” wig as a disguise (only to use it for a kill a few moments later), and the regal Angela Bassett’s icy-white dreadlocks, which deserve an Oscar.
For more than two hours, I was able to immerse myself in a technologically superior African society untouched by colonization—something that’s empowering in and of itself.
There are also a few things I didn’t love about Black Panther: First, there’s Martin Freeman’s seemingly pointless CIA agent (though he is a great recipient for Shuri’s “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer” line), and then there’s... a pack of metallic CGI rhinos?
Still, there’s greatness in here: During a car chase in South Korea, Okoye rolls her eyes as bullets ping off the windshield. “Guns,” she says. “So primitive.” It’s one more example of how Black Panther’s reimagined history flips the status quo. For more than two hours, I was able to immerse myself in a technologically superior African society untouched by colonization—something that’s empowering in and of itself. If you know a bit about Black history, it might be hard for you to wrap your mind around the idea of an African nation that’s maintained its power, its resources, and its choice to aid the rest of the world. But it sure is fun to try.