Published Feb 16, 2018Though the MCU may have been predicated on striking a delicate balance between its expanding array of superheroes, there were always bound to be peaks and valleys amongst its output. Soaring magnificently into the former category is Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, which manages to explore new textures and reveal greater layers in an already saturated genre while still delivering the kind of excitement and thrills we've come to expect. In the process of scaling these wondrous heights, it might just plant a flag as the new pinnacle to aspire to for all future superhero films.
It all starts with its main character, or rather, characters: as central as the Black Panther himself — T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) — is, his home country of Wakanda in Africa plays a huge role, too. In an animated introduction, we learn all about the land's majesty and secrets, including the fact that the nation was struck by a meteorite years ago. This event bestowed upon its people the valuable and powerful mineral Vibranium, a key component in Wakanda's advanced technologies. Then we're momentarily transported to 1992 Oakland, where T'Challa's father, King T'Chaka (John Kani), is forced to dispose of rogue Wakandan N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) in an event that will have great reverberations many years later.
Back in present day, T'Challa is mourning the loss of T'Chaka from the events of The Avengers: Civil War and preparing to become the new king of Wakanda. But of course, evil never sleeps, and before long T'Challa is headed to South Korea to track down arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has stolen a Wakandan artefact from a museum. He's assisted in the robbery by the aptly named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who turns out to both be more dangerous than Klaue and to have ties to Wakanda that cause him to set his sights on T'Challa's throne. The film's populated with a number of rich supporting characters, which gives all its actors at least one moment to shine.
T'Challa's ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is seemingly always coming to his rescue as a member of the all-female special forces Dora Milaje, alongside the group's lethal leader Okoye (Danai Gurira). T'Challa's 16-year old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) could put Q to shame with the kind of innovative gadgetry she's able to produce. Elsewhere, Forest Whitaker's Zuri is a Wakandan mystic who leads the various tribes in rituals, Martin Freeman has more to do this time around than in Civil War as CIA agent Everett K. Ross and Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is a close friend and advisor of T'Challa's.
Throughout it all, there are moments of grandeur and awe — such as the initial descent into the sprawling and vibrant Wakanda, a nation cleverly hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders — but alongside the requisite assortment of chases through the streets, brutal battles, daring escapes and inevitable climactic showdowns, there are quieter moments, like a ceremony that transports T'Challa to visit his ancestors, that are more spiritual and introspective. Aside from fighting the obvious villains and external forces, it's surprising and refreshing to also find T'Challa twisted in inner turmoil over the responsibility his nation bears in assisting others with their power and wealth.
Despite everything that's circling around them, Coogler never loses sight of the central conflict between T'Challa and Killmonger, slowly revealing their shared history until it's nearly boiled over to Shakespearean proportions. While Boseman lends great weight and a focused intensity to the title character, Jordan nearly manages to steal the movie with his stylish hairdo, ripped physique and the kind of motivation that almost makes you sympathize with his villain.
This is yet another spectacular achievement for Coogler, who has been showcasing his directing prowess and steadily amassing fans since Fruitvale Station kicked the door open for Creed, as he continues to find larger audiences without losing any of his storytelling panache or visual flair. One can only wonder what Coogler will do next after this film surely cements him as one of Hollywood's greatest young talents behind the camera. (Disney)