Black Panther does two things very, very well. It throws a lot of crazy-ass Afro-Futurism into the mix, resulting in something that is both fresh and looks great, and it undergirds the plot with thematic weight. The actors are having fun, but aren’t ashamed to be acting in a superhero movie. They are earnest without being self-serious or feeling the need to snark about it. That, and the sheer amount of talent in the movie, more than make up for a somewhat paint-by-the-numbers plot. Black Panther falls short of my top 5 all-time superhero movies, but it is comfortably in the top 10, I think.
Black Panther is highly effective as a standalone, but the catalyst for the events of the movie is the death of the king of Wakanda’s death during Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa must return to Wakanda and earn the title of king, setting aside the Black Panther gifts of enhanced strength, speed, and senses and his vibranium suit to do so. One of his first official acts is to head to Korea to capture Ulysses Klaue, who stole a fortune in vibranium thirty years prior.
Wakanda is a nation at a crossroads. T’Challa’s actions will reveal more about the events surrounding the theft of the vibranium than he bargained for. Wakanda has survived the resource curse of a mountain of vibranium to become the most technologically advanced country in the world. But it has done so without engaging with the rest of the world. Its spies instead only take.
Underlying the plot are three distinct visions of Wakanda (or of any mighty country). T’Challa stands for the status quo—isolation from the world. T’Challa’s ex Nakia pushes for engagement with the world, arguing that they have a moral obligation to use their wealth to help people. The villain, Killmonger, provides the final vision. Conquest is Wakanda’s destiny.
The whole thing winds up curiously American in outlook for a movie that is supposed to be celebrating Afro-Futurism. But more importantly, it grounds those big-picture themes in family ties without the weird selfishness that the role of family is more often a vehicle for in contemporary Hollywood. Blood matters, but so does right and wrong. T’Challa is crowned king, but he can’t rule without the support of the people and the tribal leaders. His chief bodyguard and general Okoye is fiercely committed to her duty and the law, repeatedly placing both above her personal feelings and loyalties.
All of that is kept at a level that enhances, rather than detracts from, the plot. It is that added thematic heft that buoys an otherwise predictable plot. The set piece in Korea provides the only standout action but none of it is bad. I hate to say a two and a half hour movie should have been three, but a key sequence needed time to breathe.
None of this slows Black Panther down because it looks and sounds gorgeous. The Afro-Futurism affects everything from the design to the style to the tech. Black Panther is a riot of color. Even T’Challa’s panther suits abandon unrelenting black to add purple and gold. His Dora bodyguards are surely inspired in part by the Dahomey Amazons (as were the Aiel Maidens of the Spear). Communications devices resemble beads and weapons resemble panthers.
Even better, every character has a clear motivation and code and is improved by the actor’s performance. Chadwick Boseman is very good, Michael B. Jordan is better, and the three female leads, especially Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright, threaten to steal the show (Andy Serkis outright does in his limited screen time).
4.5 of 5 Stars.