Marvel’s Black Panther is everything you want from a comic book movie: sleek, action packed, and full of depth. Oh, and it’s unapologetically black.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther invites us to a world where it is okay to be black. It’s a world where there’s no posturing or pretense. It’s a place to take a breath, where even black villainy can be empathized with — where immorality does not become amorality as a way of enforcing black inferiority within a theatre of whiteness. Where we are not interpreting what Adolph Reed called the “opaquely black heart of darkness for whites.”
That is what is at the crux of this carefully written drama by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. It only masquerades as an action film — maybe to drive home the idea that an unmoored black civilization is only believable in this world of complete fantasy — in order to construct a civilization where navigating whiteness is optional.
In the film Wakanda has tucked itself away, hidden from view because of a super-metal called vibranium that is native to their land (it’s the same stuff in Captain America’s shield). They’ve taken the metal to new heights. The technology is out-of-this-world and, they believe, dangerous to the rest of it. And that’s when Wakanda begins to deal with the realities of the black universe its isolationism left behind.
Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, king of Wakanda. Boseman turns in a career defining performance here. A character with so much cool, so much dignity, he may never be able to escape it. So much fragility, too. He’s a king fretting about, trying to find his way.
Coogler says the Black Panther storyline is carved from sections of various iterations of the comic. The unfathomably royal Dora Milaje are here, created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira in Black Panther Vol. 3. (Nakia (Lupita N’Yongo) is significantly changed here but nonetheless well conceived.) Shuri (Letitia Wright), youngest sister of T’Challa, is also here, created in Black Panther Vol. 4 by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new run is also included, and it’s prominent, a storyline that involves disagreement among the monarchy, a father hiding secrets from a son and an alt-Black Panther in Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) that will leave you rooting for the villain.
Michael B. Jordan dazzles as Killmonger. His story in the film is so justified it allows you to wrestle with the encampment of our diaspora in a way almost no other film, superhero epic or otherwise, has. They are twins in that way, two-sides of the Black-in-America coin. And does it matter if each sees himself in the other? Does it matter that their opposition is rooted in an unmistakable love for each other? That they would gladly be the other? We don’t think so, and that’s what makes this the tightest integration of a villain in any Marvel film to date.
Then there’s Wakanda.
A wonder-of-the-world in the film; its existence brings up tumultuous emotions. It is both a salve in our imaginations — a place we could escape to — and a mirage in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, cut off from the rest of civilization by choice. Who among us would not choose such an escape? But making it real makes it feel all the more impossible. The storyline converges here among trouble at home and secrets abroad. No other Marvel film, save for Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, so deftly handles the internal drama of the MCU’s various kingdoms. Black Panther is far better for it.
As a genre film, it’s possible that this shifts the palette of Hollywood. As a meditation on the last black kingdom, and what it means to come home, it’s a dramatic, imaginative dispatch from another dimension. That place is just like ours with one key difference: Wakanda.