Black Panther director Ryan Coogler gets a lot of milage out of revealing that Wakanda, the tiny African country dismissed by most of the world as impovershed and backwards, is in fact the most technologically and socially advanced nation on the planet. It’s kind of the same for fans of the now decade old Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther reveals a new and unique world within the one we thought we already knew.
In fact, although it picks up on events from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, in which Chadwick Boseman debuted as Prince T’Challa of Wakanda and took the mantle of Black Panther to avenge his father’s death, this film is best understood as the introduction of a new universe. That might seem dangerously indulgent, especially given the Disney-owned MCU’s penchant for franchise-building, but Black Panther gives viewers so many new sights and endearing characters that you can’t help but want more.
Here, we meet the Dora Milaje, a group of warrior women led by Okoye (Danai Gurira), who serve as T’Challa’s personal army. We meet Letitia Wright as snarky techno-genius Shuri, a sort of kid sister version of Tony Stark. We meet spymaster and love interest Nakia, played by L’upito Nyong’o. We meet the five Wakandan tribes, lead by the likes of Winston Duke’s would-be usurper M’Baku and Daniel Kaluuya’s advisor W’Kabi. Each is so compelling and well-portrayed that I would love to see a spin-off movie about any of them (especially Shuri).
None of this is a slight against the title character or against Boseman, who does an outstanding job playing a man wrestling with revelations about his father and the weight of his country’s debt to the world. But the film is so dense and rich that, like kids walking into a comic book shop for the first time, the audience is too excited to focus too much.
Until, that is, Michael B. Jordan comes on screen as the film’s primary villain, Erik Stevens aka Killmonger, and completely controls our attention. With a name like that, and with MCU’s record of forgetable bad guys, there’s reason to worry that he’ll be just another one-note loony with a super-weapon. But the script (by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) and Jordan’s nuanced performance make Killmonger the best superhero villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker, if not better. The son of T’Challa’s traitorous uncle, raised as an American mercenary and planning to use Wakandan technology to overthrow global racial oppression, Killmonger emerges as the ideal personal and ideological foe for T’Challa.
Despite all the weight placed on him by plot and theme, Jordan never lets the character feel like a story mechanic or a philosophical mouthpiece. Bringing both technical mastery and ample charisma to the role, he makes Killmonger a fully rounded human, motivated not only by personal trauma, but also a reasonable and just grievence. Joker was fun to watch, and we felt his absence whenever he wasn’t on screen, but no one (except the morally bankrupt) heard his speeches and said, “Good point.” With Killmonger, we do.
The balancing act pulled off with Killmonger illustrates the moves Coogler makes throughout the film. He’s been given almost an impossible task: tell a good superhero story in a fully realized world never before seen on screen and do it in a way that mass audiences can follow. Coogler meets the challenge by working from familiar genres — a spy caper, Shakespearian palace intrigue, a superhero saving the world from his evil double — and rendering them strange. We’ve seen families battle for the throne, but not in futuristic Africa; we’ve seen secret agents fight in hidden exotic casinos, but not with a powerful black woman with a flowing red dress and sci-fi spear. As this last observation suggests, Coogler gets a lot of help from costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who make Wakanda’s citizens not only visually stunning, but easy to identify. Viewers get lost in the story, but never lost by the story.
The same cannot be said of the film’s action sequences. Not only do the poor CG-effects make the otherwise athletic Panther feel weightless and rubbery, but Coogler shoots the action scenes almost entirely in close-up, with far too many edits. That’s the house style for the MCU, but one hopes for more from Coogler, who filmed breathtaking boxing sequences in Creed. Scenes that should be equally awesome — particularly the final battle, involving warrior tribes, space-age fighter jets, and an armored rhino battalion — feel small and disorienting.
But these occasional reminders of MCU mediocrity cannot overshadow Black Panther’s many other accomplishments. Never before have we seen a hero fight for the good of a world so similar to ours, even as the king of a world ours longs to see. It’s truly spectacular, and I can’t wait to see more of it