Officially the highest scoring Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film on Rotten Tomatoes (currently at 97%), Black Panther is set to obliterate some box office records and make an early, definitive stamp on 2018. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, whose previous works include Creed and Fruitvale Station, and it boasts a phenomenal cast of black actors, including Chadwick Boseman, Lupita N’yongo, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Koluyaa, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker, to name a few.
Black Panther picks up 10 days after Captain America: Civil War leaves off. In that film, we were introduced to T’Challa and the death of his father T’Chaka. Beginning in Black Panther, we see his ascent to the throne, as well as the world he inhabits: a hidden, isolated world full of advanced technology in the heart of Africa called Wakanda. His inauguration as king is under threat by many forces, including multi-generational and tribal unrest, political disagreement, and a new threat by Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Killmonger’s mysterious origins evoke for T’Challa, and all of Wakanda, a series of questions, deceptions, and challenges as to what it means to be Wakandan, and what it means to be a king.
This, the 18th film in the MCU, belongs to a smaller batch of MCU films that wears on its sleeve the current socio-political crises of America and the world today. Black Panther is easily the most outright about it, with only Iron-Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier coming even close to its political-mindedness. It’s obvious from the social movements already emerging from the film (“Black Panther Challenge”) that it has found a resonance with its unashamed representation of black artists, black culture, and black pride. In all of these areas, Black Panther exceeds every expectation created by its trailer, its soundtrack, and its hype.
Where Black Panther succeeds most thematically is by not trying to prove that racism exists -that America and countries all over the world have oppressed black people and black communities for millennia. It simply assumes it. The movie engages in a kind of unabashed truth-telling that is less about being prophetic or preachy than it is about being honest. Through Coogler’s deft directing and writing, the story makes a brilliant move to set the film’s primary conflict within Wakanda itself. The film comments on racism, representation, and black power by its mere existence, and refuses to apologize for it. It then uses its world to rehearse the conflict that we face in our own nation right now: hoarding resources, valuing security over hospitality, and building literal and figurative walls to keep others out and ourselves in.
The Marvel formula is still at play here, and if this movie has any flaw, it’s found in the restrictions that are placed on a movie that belongs to the MCU. More than any other MCU movie, you can feel the creativity and poignancy trying to explode out of the confines of the Marvel-movie-formula. (A formula that, by the way, I am on record as saying that I adore.) That it manages to be as great as it is comes in spite of the Marvel formula, though, and not because of it. This speaks once again to the great talent assembled for a movie that deserves to be entirely unfettered by the apparent requirements of excessive CGI and third-act chaos.
Where it improves on the Marvel formula is by showcasing its most compelling villain yet. Jordan’s Killmonger has the most emotionally rich and philosophically compelling storyline of any character in the film, and both his motivation and mission, not to be spoiled here, are hard to argue with. The heroes find themselves having to come to terms with the truth that the villain exposes and represents. Killmonger challenges T’Challa, and Wakanda, to be a needed light and hope for the world, even as he might be too hard of heart to receive it himself. It’s perhaps one of the most interesting meditations in popular film on loving your enemy, even as you most oppose them.
In the same way that last year’s Wonder Woman was an overdue revelation of representation, Black Panther is more than a movie. It is more, even, than a cultural moment, but is actually a movement. It’s a shift that may take years to understand and uncover, but its influence is already felt in movie theatres filled with kids from communities brutalized by racist systems, and celebrities pledging millions of dollars to organizations that lift those communities up. As a seeker of God’s justice, I love what this movie has inspired in our culture, and hope it never stops. As a lover of movies, I look forward to the franchise that this movie launched, and the works of countless filmmakers, actors, writers, and other artists that it will inspire.