Free from the burdens of a sprawling franchise, Black Panther proudly roars louder than most of its colleagues in the crowded big-screen superhero marketplace.
This smart and sophisticated origin story succeeds because of its audacity to subversively break the mold and a determination to stand out among its cinematic comic-book colleagues rather than merely position itself as another inconsequential link in a chain.
The character first seen on screen in Captain America: Civil War takes center stage here, as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda, where he is set to inherit the throne after his father is killed in a suspected terrorist attack.
As king, it becomes T’Challa’s responsibility to guard his country’s top-secret technological advancements stemming from a mined source of nuclear-level power. While T’Challa promotes non-violence in an increasingly volatile sociopolitical landscape, certain greedy tribal factions want to share those resources, even if they might fall into the wrong hands. “Our weapons will not be used to wage war on the world,” T’Challa declares.
That eventually leads to a power struggle with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an emotionally troubled mercenary seeking vengeance for a past tragedy. With the assistance of his tough-minded younger sister (Leticia Wright) and Wakanda’s clandestine security force, T’Challa transforms into Black Panther to protect his land and people.
As directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the film is noteworthy for more than just the prominent casting of minorities — especially the strong-willed black women who comprise T’Challa’s allies — in a genre where such diversity is generally lacking. Boseman (Marshall) again showcases his versatility in a cool yet charismatic performance.
The screenplay seamlessly blends fantasy and reality while efficiently unspooling a multilayered backstory that doesn’t rely on other installments for depth or context. It incorporates a healthy sense of humor, plenty of high-tech gadgetry, some impressive special effects, an obligatory Stan Lee cameo, and creatively choreographed action sequences.
Like the recent Wonder Woman, its best sequences don’t involve superpowers or heroism at all, but rather follow a richly textured journey of self-discovery. One example is T’Challa’s extended coronation scene steeped in tribal customs — it’s both visually stylish and deeply moving.
The film overcomes some formulaic plotting as it funnels into an inevitably overwrought final confrontation with widespread destruction and the future of mankind in the balance. Then it sets up sequels and spinoffs to come, of course.
Yet Coogler even stages those genre staples with technical proficiency and emotional complexity that feels more fresh than familiar. After all, Black Panther is most remarkable not for its muscle, but for its heart.