Though it might seem like it can do no wrong, sometimes the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels a bit of a slog to check some off the list before getting to the main events. We had to meet Captain America before he met The Avengers and Civil War would’ve been one Empire Strikes Back reference short without an introduction to Ant Man. Had it been in the wrong hands, Black Panther could’ve been a luke warm-up act to this years Avengers: Infinity War, but director Ryan Coogler, who is on a winning streak for the ages, ensures not to waste an audience with King T’Challa and delivers something truly special in Marvel’s newest and most fascinating addition.
Set shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to mourn the death of his father and take his seat on the throne. As we’ve come to learn from current events, a civil unrest is inevitable, rippling out across this highly advanced and off-the-geographical-grid country regarding its new ruler. Our hero’s fight for peace and stability in his kingdom becomes even more uncertain when a dark secret from the past reappears to threaten everything T’Challa and generations before him have fought to uphold.
Though he may be the first top-tier black superhero to fall into the ranks of the Marvel Cinematic machine, Black Panther isn’t the first one to appear in film. The king of Wakanda has been waiting in the wings for some time to get his shot on the screen, going as far back as the 90’s when Wesley Snipes had his eye on the role, only to sharpen his Blade when plans fell through. Now almost twenty years on, the timing couldn’t have been better to let the Panther loose, with Coogler not just filling in a slot for the lead to Marvel’s big summer hit, but using it as a platform to make a statement that few have braved to make, and breaking comic book traditions to set up ones of his own.
Starting things off in worn down Oakland and not HRH’s majestic homeland, it’s apparent that Coogler is set to say something through his chosen superhero, mainly due to the fictional territory and the questions that it provokes. Ruling over a technologically advanced African nation in hiding, this King that’s part Tony Stark, slightly 007’ish and the world he inhabits makes it hard not to query why he doesn’t share his wealth with the rest of the globe. It’s a debate that stirs among our hero’s friends and enemies alike, as the subject of immigration and unifying nations makes and breaks relationships, creating easily the strongest story that’s ever braved the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All of it is handled expertly and fed through a vibrant lens of African culture that floods every frame. This might be the most beautiful entry on the roster since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
At the forefront of this complex and wonderfully constructed tale are Boseman and his antagonist with a solid angle, Erik Kilmonger, played by Coogler’s lucky charm, Michael B. Jordan. Just as the films hero has struggles with his duty as King and the hero he can be, so too does the outsider with ties to our current Black Panther, that makes for one of the most compelling comic book villains to date. Rivalling even Tom Hiddleston in terms of charisma and presence, Kilmonger is like all the best bad guys; one we can completely appreciate and understand, with a perspective on the world that’s wronged him and carrying motivations to right them, by any means necessary. The rage and vengeance feels solid and true, which is all that’s required to make this villain stand out above the cookie cutter-type Marvel have been cursed with over the years. Even Thanos may have a job on his hand to top this terror.
In addition to a fitting battle of good versus evil, it’s encased in a flawless supporting cast that strengthen the foundations that Coogler builds. Thankfully, the effort to add more prominent female characters to this universe gets a constellation of stars who are just as compelling as their King, even carrying the film without his presence for a chunk of it. Next in line to the throne and tech-whiz to our Wakandan leader, Shuri (Letitia Wright) brings the gadgets and the gags, whilst T’Challa’s back-up appears in the form of Danai Gurira as leader of the all-female Royal Guard, Okoye. There’s also love interest Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia, a woman of the world who, like Okay can see both sides of the conflict which comes to fruition in the film’s final act. It’s here where Coogler’s play meets an end that has both its highs and lows.
Even with the wonderfully added elements of originality and drama to the film’s final sequence, even he can’t shake the certainty of two CGI characters pummeling each other’s faces in. At times the Battle of Wakanda even competes with the Battle of New York, but struggles to find a balance as good and evil collide in a rather dull scrap on a train platform. Instead, all the more interesting action is kicking off on Wakanda’s stunning landscape and the side between right and wrong shatters between vibranium shields, spears and uh, horns.
As a result, things don’t necessarily boil over between our hero and his nemesis, but rather simmer in slight disappointment. Like it or not, this is an oversight that like all Marvel films, we’ve come to adjust to but the one convention that Coogler just can’t compete with. Thankfully, it doesn’t undo all those that he succeeds in, as the Black Panther surpasses the typical superhero routine and the message he’s clearly fought so hard to deliver doesn’t go unheard. The roar is simply too loud.