Black Panther is set to hit theaters this February, bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Wakanda for the first time, and giving the first black Marvel hero a titular role in doing so. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is set to take on the mantle of King with the support of some incredibly well written and acted, often superior female characters and Marvel’s most entertaining villain to date.
Launching the film is Wakanda’s origin story. Within minutes, audiences are caught up on how the vibranium rich, technologically advanced African nation came to be and how the events of Captain America: Civil War have already affected its titular hero. In the aftermath of his father T’Chaka’s death, T’Challa must become the king of his nation and defend it and its throne against anyone who dare challenge it -- and there are plenty who believe they deserve their shot at the throne. Tradition and loyalty, however, have prevented their strikes.
Black Panther is in many ways an origin story for Boseman’s character. There aren't any sort of gamma injections or Iron Man suit flight tests, but there is a character discovering himself and his role in a crowded and intimidating world. It’s unfortunate for the lead character that in his first and hugely important outing, his supporting characters are more interesting and entertaining than he is.
The spotlight shines on the supporters because Boseman’s Black Panther remains tamely focused and determined on his goal of defending Wakanda but doesn’t give an overt reason to get emotionally attached to the character. Moments of chemistry with Letitia Wright's Shuri and Angela Bassett's Ramonda lend to the cause but don't land as heavily as needed for true investment. T'Challa's female guards in the Dora Milaje, however, have a bigger and more interesting inner conflict as they have countless difficult decisions to make, trying to siphon between emotions, politics, and instincts on a moment’s notice.
If Black Panther had not included the Dora Milaje, especially Danai Gurira's General Okoye, it would be lesser. They help carry the throne and movie to royalty as director Ryan Coogler coaches these women toward profound achievement. The fighting skills on display and technology accompanying them thanks to Wright’s brilliant and wildly fun Shuri offer some of Black Panther’s most entertaining and jaw-dropping moments. One sequence in particular, involving Gurira, a spear, and a car chase, will leave moviegoers giddy in their seats.
The women, however, aren't the only characters who thrive beside the King.
The events of Black Panther are heavily driven by Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger who is, for a large portion of the movie, operating across the planet and in search of the secret Wakandan nation. The character is on a traditional revenge quest until he is revealed to have a surprising motivation late in the film. He is much more than the villain promising to "Burn it down!" in the trailers. Jordan brings his all to the role which shines an important and engaging light on real-world social issues involving race and politics without ever explicitly naming them.
While Killmonger serves as one of the most savage and well-written villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s Andy Serkis’ Klaw who steals the show every time he is on screen. Delivering shades of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the form of unpredictable ferocity and determination, Serkis offers the most entertaining villain Marvel Studios has ever offered. We can only hope to somehow see more of the character further down the line as the Black Panther’s world continues to expand with an inevitable sequel.
Black Panther does not reinvent super hero movies. A few of its scenes and plots feel a bit disjointed as a lot of ground is covered in its 135 minute run time, causing a few transitions to feel sudden or out of place. It serves as an incredibly important cultural message arriving at a crucial time, complete with stunning visuals, unforgettable and epic action-sequences, an inspirational arc for both the protagonist and antagonist, and it introduces a slew of new characters who may be a bit underused this time around but will have us crying out for a sequel.
Black Panther: 4 out of 5 stars.