While Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” lies in the cinematic universe of the Avengers, it is a film self-contained by its own breathtaking world-building. Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani, “Captain America: Civil War”) in “Captain America: Civil War,” Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, “Marshall”) returns home to Wakanda to assume the throne and the responsibilities that come with it. With his return to Wakanda, T’Challa reveals a nation only hinted at in “Civil War.” With an ensemble cast of incredibly strong, compelling and fully-fleshed out characters, “Black Panther” showcases the vitality of leading actors of color and delivers a long-overdue demonstration of diversity in major blockbuster franchises.
Nestled in the sweeping plains of West Africa, Wakanda is an awe-inspiring civilization of stunning technological advancements and incredibly vibrant culture. The city sits atop a geological treasure trove of vibranium, the strongest and most valuable element in the MCU. The metal is woven into their clothes, powers their tech and is infused in their medicine. The inextricable cultural and scientific importance of vibranium to the nation of Wakanda justifies their isolation; to the rest of the world, Wakanda is a third-world pastoral country. To protect their way of life, the Wakandans have hidden themselves and their achievements behind a force field, choosing to remain the world’s most advanced society in secret. But with isolation comes complications, that the film works to expertly address and explore.
The fabric of Wakanda is teeming with bright, colorful vibrancy. The costume, hair and makeup design in “Black Panther” is almost overwhelmingly gorgeous — members of each of Wakanda’s five tribes are decorated in dazzling costumes that speak to the inventiveness and inspirations of the designers, who worked to pay homage to the aesthetics of African tribes in every thread. The headdresses, hair design and face makeup demonstrate the incredible attention to detail and precision made by the designers. Wakanda comes alive through the costumes, and there is a genuine sense of rich culture that pulses with every beat of the film. Even the graphic design of the title cards emphasizes the inspirations of African heritage in the film.
Mythology also plays an integral role in “Black Panther.” Ritual and ceremony are a vital part of the coronation process; after asserting his right to the throne, T’Challa drinks an infusion made from herbs grown with vibranium and enters a mystical spirit realm, where he communicates with his father. The Black Panther suit also acts as a ceremonial right handed down through generations, giving power to each King throughout time. The way in which the film weaves the mythology of Wakanda and the spirituality of its people with political and scientific elements speaks again to the film’s incredible incorporation of African culture, and sets it apart as a superhero film with its own distinct sense of self.
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challah, along with Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) as his best friend W’Kabi and Winston Duke (“Person of Interest”) as the outlying chief M’Baku, deliver compelling and magnetic performances that demonstrate the strength and regality of men willing to fight for their country. But even more compelling are the women of this film, who capture each frame with a commanding and almost tangible sense of presence. Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”) plays Okoye, the General of the Wakandan army — a woman who is both physically powerful and strong in her sense of purpose and loyalty. Lupita Nyong’o (“Queen of Katwe”) is mesmerizing as a strong-willed and compassionate Wakandan warrior, and Angela Bassett (American Horror Story) radiates regality and grace as the Queen Mother. T’Challa’s kid sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright (“Black Mirror”), is single-handedly responsible for the entire technological operation of Wakanda, an amazing feat of feminist power that proves that women can do incredible things when given the space to.
In classic Marvel fashion, “Black Panther” steps away from the traditional hero-villain binary, instead choosing to tackle more complex and weighted themes. Soon after becoming king, T’Challa is confronted by his past when his cousin, an American mercenary soldier born to King T’Chaka’s brother, returns to his native home of Wakanda to assert his blood right to the throne. This antagonist, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”), addresses the problematic aspects of Wakanda as a hidden but powerful nation. People of color around the world experience injustice, brutality and oppression, and Wakanda has the power to liberate them. Killmonger works to complicate the Atlantean fantasy of Wakanda by arguing for its active presence in global politics, and its responsibility to weaponize and liberate Black people everywhere. “Black Panther” reinforces Marvel’s brilliance as a franchise by showing an active infusion of real-world issues in a fantastical space. Killmonger advances the notion of a Black power fantasy by imagining a world where people of color upend the social hierarchy, while complicating the issue with his emphasis on bloodlust and violence.
“Black Panther” is a revolutionary, important and dynamic film that showcases a diverse ensemble cast of powerful Black actors and builds a world where African people have the technology and agency to determine world order. The movie balances an upbeat, playful tone with one that seriously examines the plight of oppressed people, focusing in on the Black experience in America. It is a breathtaking film that sings with vibrancy in every stroke, melding art forms and influences to create a world unlike anything seen before. It stands as one of Marvel’s strongest hero films, and one of the most inventive and thought-provoking pieces of cinema to ever be put on screen.