There’s a nice little moment in the first act of Black Panther, during which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the titular Black Panther himself, is returning home from an undercover mission aboard his futuristic aircraft. As the jet is seconds away from phasing through a cloaking device depicting a typical African landscape over the hidden fictional, technologically-advanced country known as Wakanda, T’Challa cannot help himself from giddily musing “This never gets old,” in anticipation of the familiar, yet still breathtaking, view that awaits.
And you know what? Neither does Marvel.
It is admittedly difficult for any current installment of the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) to not feel at least a tad familiar; and, Black Panther, film #18 in a decade of comic book crossovers, is no exception. Like the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films before it, Black Panther is no slouch at introducing eye-popping vistas; Wakanda being exactly the type of utopia audiences would pour over. The film, though noticeably more restrained in the comedy department, still boasts the same Marvel-style humor audiences have been accustomed to, and earns every chuckle (one joke, which I dare not spoil, involves T’Challa’s footwear that kept the entire theater in stitches for thirty seconds). We even get the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, indicating that nothing has really changed.
Or has it? The concept of a black superhero on screen is hardly novel: 1998’s Blade was the first successful film based on a Marvel character, and TV shows Luke Cage and Black Lightning are doing just fine. Yet, none of these adaptations were privy to the exposure Black Panther has deservingly lapped up, and for good reason. Black Panther is a mainstream, big-budget film released in 2017, starring a predominantly black cast (Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, returning from previous movies, are the only white guys) and shining the spotlight on African culture. The actual story (newly-crowned King T’Challa must decide how best to rule Wakanda, as a mysterious adversary with an apparent connection rises up and challenges everything T’Challa believes in) does follow all the familiar beats one would expect; but, dress those beats up in an appealing style that portrays an underrepresented group of people positively and direct said beats really, really well, than the story can turn out incredibly engaging - as is the case here.
Director Ryan Coogler (already a big name from Fruitvale Station and Creed) has crafted a rich and pleasurable film that isn’t afraid to tackle the issues and feelings the black community holds head-on. Even gutsier, Coogler refuses to propose a “correct” solution to dealing with the problems at hand: Wakanda gets to thrive in blissful seclusion from an adversity-ridden world that would likely loot and pillage its secret resources, while villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, phenomenal in a performance dripping with charisma and righteous anger) seeks to share the country’s wealth and technology with the oppressed of the world by striking back at its oppressors. Both sides have a point...both, right and wrong. And, while I won’t give away how the dilemma is resolved, I will say it is done in a “baby-steps” satisfying way.
Also, declarative statement: Black Panther boasts the best cast of any MCU film, so far (just for two months...until the little movie named Avengers: Infinity War comes out in May). In his supporting role in Captain America: Civil War, nearly two years ago, Boseman effectively stole the film away from Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in a vengeance-driven character arc; so, you knew then he was leading-man material. And, now, here Boseman is further cementing that status. He handles the conflict T’Challa faces so effortlessly that I’m excited to see what he does with the character next. And, to mention all the women in his life - if I were to begin gushing about spy/ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, compassionate and just awesome by virtue of being Lupita Nyong’o), princess/teenage “Tony Stark” Shuri (Letitia Wright, given virtually all the film’s best lines), bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira, formidable and a blast to watch kick ass), and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, regal and heart-wrenching) - I would be here all day. I’d prefer to spend my day seeing Black Panther a second time. Everyone should.