Black Panther is a shrewd remix of popular entertainment, filtered through a lens of evocative Afrofuturism. Director Ryan Coogler accomplishes what no other film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done: It has a unique look to it, as well as a genuinely charismatic, plausible villain. The film’s look is not just because the vast majority of characters and extras are black: The fictional country of Wakanda is a gorgeous triumph of production design, owing more to anthropology and myth than comic books. When most comic book films amount to little more than spectacle, Black Panther achieves a near-constant sense of vitality.
An animated prologue explains that Wakanda sits on reserves of vibranium, an extremely rare metal that helped the East African nation develop into a secret superpower. Its civilization is far more advanced than any other in the world, and it uses the vestiges of colonial racism (plus some sophisticated cloak technology) to hide in plain sight. After the death of his father, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the country’s newly-anointed king, and the title Black Panther is more than ceremonial: With a vibranium suit and superhuman abilities, T’Challa is his country’s chief diplomat and military leader. Unlike Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, this is an origin story for an advanced civilization, with traditions and rituals that draw from African tribes.
Shortly after his coronation, T’Challa must contend with two important issues. Wakandan spies have tracked Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer wanted for murder, to South Korea. More importantly, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) wants Wakanda to abandon its isolation in favor of foreign aid and sharing its vibranium. Klaue is the more immediate threat, so T’Challa travels to Busan with Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), his head of security. Klaue is no pushover—he has Wakandan technology, plus a homicidal streak—but the bigger threat is his accomplice Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger wants to overthrow T’Challa, with reasons that are more complex and justified than he lets on.
One intriguing thing about Black Panther is how T’Challa is almost a minor character in his own story. Coogler creates a much larger canvas, highlighting how the Wakandan monarchy is more of a team effort than it initially sounds. This makes Killmonger’s force of will stand out, and coupled with Jordan’s ferocious performance, the antagonist steals the show. Unlike previous Marvel villains who rely on scenery-chewing, Erik is dangerous because his ideas are genuinely compelling. He rejects Wakanda’s isolationism in favor of militant black nationalism. He is so charismatic—and his anger is so justified—that the film carries more significance than the average popcorn entertainment.
Rather than have the story serve the action, letting exposition lead up to a major set-piece, Coogler and his co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole let the action serve the story. There is relatively less action in Black Panther than other Marvel movies, but Coogler makes it count. There is a car chase through Busan where T’Challa leaps from rooftop to rooftop, a more engaged participant than the average pursuer. Betrayals and military overthrows notwithstanding, Coogler also wants the action to be fun: Before the car chase, Klaue has his driver put on some chasing music (one of the soundtrack’s many Kendrick Lamar tunes).
All the production details looks great, too, with a mix of T’Challa’s jet-black suit, the bright colors of Wakandan tribes, and the pastoral countryside. Coogler brought on the production team from his previous films, including Academy Award-nominee Rachel Morrison as his cinematographer, so Black Panther has a memorable look and fluidity to it. When the action finally converges on the Wakandan steppe, all the characters are given a chance to show off their combat skills. That all these warriors are black, their powerful bodies making an intense visual impression, is an important step toward representation in a franchise full of blandly attractive white men.
The influences on Black Panther cast a wide net. On top of Afrofuturist art, Coogler draws from The Lord of the Rings, James Bond movies, and The Lion King. But with its drama among royalty, one the more important influences is Shakespeare. Killmonger is a tragic figure, occasionally riffing on lines from Romeo and Juliet, while T’Challa suffers from the same indecision as Hamlet. That is not to say this cocktail of mythmaking, drama, and action is too stuffy for its own good. Letitia Wright offers ample comic relief as T’Challa’s sister Shuri, while Serkis has infectious fun as a psychotic villain. Most comic book films do not transcend their genre, or even try. Like T’Challa’s step toward becoming a world leader, Black Panther shows the next generation of comic book films how it’s done.
Black Panther opens Friday in theaters everywhere.