It may have taken its time getting here, but the seemingly endless wait for an Afro-centric superhero movie hasn’t taken its toll on Black Panther. Creed director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the now eighteen movie-long Marvel Cinematic Universe shows up ready to play. And play it does – with breathless confidence – into pure comic book escapism that never fails to cast an eye outward toward genuine racial discussions and a message of unity that stands up as one of the more upbeat offerings in its genre’s entire history. If Wonder Woman created waves for the treatment of women in our culture, then make no mistake, Black Panther’s a cinematic tsunami as regards the triumphant chest-bump its characters offer mainstream African-American culture. And it’s even got time to shine more than a few spotlights on the women in the crowd, to boot.
Largely playing with a sci-fi live-action mould of The Lion King, Black Panther sees T’Challa – newly ascendant to the role of king, following his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War – return to accept his crown and lead his people. Amidst discussion of where the future of his advanced isolationist kingdom lies in the scope of a wider and ever more desperate world, the new king is also tasked with defending the Wakandan people in the form of warrior hero, the Black Panther, a role he must learn to harness with the arrival of a pair of enemies with designs on Wakanda itself.
Having dazzled his way through madcap James Brown biopic Get On Up and brought a design air of Roundtree-esque cool to Thurgood Marshall last year, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Chadwick Boseman could bring the goods when it comes to T’Challa – particularly following a startlingly meaty part in Civil War a couple of years back now. Given the full breadth of his Afro-futuristic playground in which to cut loose then, Boseman makes it clear from the onset that this is his show, and it’s one he’s going to own you with for at least the next two and a quarter hours. At complete ease with the nuance and intricacy of his subject, Boseman’s hero is one of measurement and introspection, boasting a depth of character unseen in literally any MCU movie to date.
As the lingering memory of Heath Ledger reminds us, however, it’s all for nought without a great villain; and it’s here that Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay turns out its greatest creation in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Jordan knows well how to swing for the fences in Coogler’s yard, and here – aided by some concise writing that’s absolutely unafraid to dig into the other known use of its own title – he’s given enough space to build a genuinely terrifying performance.
Black Panther’s not just all about the boys though, and it’s impressive that Coogler would take as much focus as he does away from the Y-chromosome to give his three central female figures the space in which to shine. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira is an instant Marvel classic – arguably the closest any of the movies have come to rivalling TV-offshoot Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Melinda May in the loveable badass stakes – while Lupita Nyong’o gets easily the best love interest part any actress has ever landed in the MCU, bringing warmth, sincerity, and outright physical chops to a role she unquestionably makes her own. Letitia Wright’s the breakout star of Black Panther, however – with genius princess Shuri doubtless set to become a fan favourite, to say nothing of wanting to see the acerbically poised acid-tongued teen potentially square off against the comparatively dimwitted Tony Stark some day.
The entire cast – without stopping to dwell on the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, or the brilliantly scene-stealing Winston Duke – are given a grand old time here, with Rachel Morrison’s gorgeous cinematography giving Hannah Beachler’s stunning production design and Ruth Carter’s astonishing costumes the perfectly realised vision of Wakanda in which to thrive. Coogler knows the strength of his film lies in its cultural identity, and along with bringing that identity to texturally wondrous life, he never shies away from providing real world context to it all either. His true genius, however, is in infusing that context so intrinsically into the bones of his story so uncompromisingly.
Though Black Panther quickly asserts itself as the most out-and-out cinematic work of the comic book movie genre since Nolan (at least twice), it’s not without minor grumbles, naturally – the great ones rarely are, if we’re honest – and its a number of thinly drawn story elements (Gurira and Kaluuya, for instance, are mentioned fleetingly as being lovers in what appears to be an excised sub-plot) and some pretty weightless CGI action sequences that aren’t helped by rather misjudged lighting. Such strikes in the con column however pale in comparison to the eyebrow-raising number of ticks in the pro one, with Black Panther a shoe-in to become a widespread fan-favourite in the mould best compared to the first Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s another call for cementing of Chadwick Boseman as an outright star, and delivers one of the definitive comic book movie experiences of our time all whilst carrying what could so easily have been the burden of its own cultural significance with all the swagger and grace of its eponymous king. Ryan Coogler’s going to become a genuine auteur down the line – he’s dangled the possibility over us a couple times before and now he’s making us believe – taking his own stabs at everything from old Phantom serials to the action patois of F. Gary Gray and even throwing a cheeky wink to Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq as he goes. More than just that, he’s an aspiring auteur with an absolute dream team in collatorators such as cinematographer Morrison and composer Ludwig Göransson. The synergy and dialogue between everyone behind the camera creates a genuine harmony within Black Panther, and with the story, spectacle and acting talent Black Panther has to offer, it won’t just be the characters depicted within who are proclaiming “Wakanda forever” once those credits roll. This is a movie with real claws, and it will not mess around getting those claws into you.