Critics were asked to avoid spoilers when reviewing Black Panther and so I will, but really, nothing I could write could in any meaningful way “spoil” the experience of this movie. It’s a historic film, an unprecedented convergence of black talent led by an African-American creative team with a result that splashes across the screen with the epic scope you’ve come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
You’d have to see it even if it was somehow awful, but of course it’s awesome. You don’t need Joe White Guy here to tell you that, but here I am anyway because like Martin Freeman’s character in the film, I just can’t resist getting my two cents in. It’s a splendid epic with an absorbing story, poignantly and powerfully aware of its resonance.
I’ve more or less lost track of where Marvel’s onscreen world is currently at (stay until the credits are finished to enjoy a reference I didn’t get), but Black Panther largely focuses on its eponymous hero (Chadwick Boseman) and a succession battle in his fictional African country of Wakanda. Equipped with the powerful substance vibranium, Wakanda develops incredible technology that allows it to remain secure and prosperous, but chooses to hide itself from the outside world.
T’Challa, who becomes Black Panther when his father T’Chaka (John Kani) dies in a terrorist attack (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), is content to maintain the status quo. Erik (Michael B. Jordan), a challenger to the throne, was raised outside of the kingdom’s bubble and sees things differently: Africans and their descendants are suffering around the world, and Wakanda’s power could upend that repressive order.
It’s a tantalizing premise, and screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole craftily use it to complicate Jordan’s character. The solution to violence isn’t more violence…or is it? This is a superhero movie, after all. Coogler and Cole embrace the story’s ambiguities, which makes the central drama far more compelling than it would be if the climax simply came down to which guy wore his panther suit better.
Coogler directs, having also teamed with Jordan in Creed — the paradigmatic casualty of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal. Here, his screen teems with life and humor, many of the jokes coming at T’Challa’s expense as leveled by the powerful women in his life. Angela Basset (as T’Challa’s mother) and Lupita Nyong’o (as a spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend) are of course splendid, but they don’t get to have nearly as much fun as Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s teen sister who also happens to be Wakanda’s technology czar.
Not since Prince donated tunes to Batman have original songs been so integral to a superhero movie’s aesthetic; Kendrick Lamar gets more soundtrack time than Prince did, and for good reason. Music editor Steve Durkee does a masterful job integrating Lamar’s contributions with Ludwig Göransson’s orchestral score, itself incorporating local musicians recorded in Senegal and South Africa.
(As though the film’s other achievements weren’t enough to endear to the hearts of fantasy film buffs, Black Panther even has Andy Serkis show up looking surprisingly beefy in a gleefully villainous IRL role…and yes, there’s a Middle Earth reunion with Hobbit costar Freeman.)
It all folds into a motion picture of unique sweep and vision. It’s breaking pre-release sales records, and for good reasons: Black Panther has something for everyone with eyes, ears, a brain, and/or a heart. A mid-credits scene unmistakably underlines the film’s powerful we-go-high ethos, and its relevance to the world outside the theater. This is a superhero movie that’s bigger than the movies, already the most significant and surely one of the best films of the year.