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I don’t want to confine Black Panther to the fact of its nearly all-Black cast. However, as I sat to enjoy the latest addition to Marvel’s cinematic universe, the genuine importance of Black Panther’s identity washed over me and I felt a surge of excitement. Yes, there have been Black superheroes before; Blade especially stands out. But this is an entire universe of dark-skinned people portrayed with complexity and humor.
It’s easy for me, a 42 year old White guy, to take identity for granted at the movies. But, putting myself in the mindset of a Black person for a moment, I can sense the historic importance of Black Panther and how the film can’t merely be good, it has to be good enough to carry the burden of Black film history on top of it, regardless of its nature as popcorn entertainment.
Thankfully, Black Panther is that good. Director Ryan Coogler and his remarkable cast have crafted a movie of great fun, exceptional adventure and a pure cinematic achievement. Black Panther is both a movie that can withstand the historic weight of Black film history and be a pure piece of popcorn entertainment that any audience of any race can enjoy.
Black Panther picks up the story of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) just days after the death of his father, seen in Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa is days away from officially becoming the new King of Wakanda, but that doesn’t stop him from battling terrorists threatening Wakanda’s border, terrorists that just so happen to have been infiltrated by T’Challa’s beloved, Nakia (Lupita N’Yongo), Wakanda’s top spy.
After picking up Nakia and informing her of his father’s death, T’Challa returns to Wakanda where he is to take part in a ceremony wherein he will be stripped of the powers of the Black Panther and forced to battle a warrior from any of Wakanda’s six tribes with the right to be the King of Wakanda at stake. This challenge will become important later when we are introduced to Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a lost member of one of the tribes of Wakanda.
In Captain America: Civil War, we were given just a taste of the kingdom of Wakanda, an African nation that is secretly the most advanced society on Earth. Now, in Black Panther, we get to see Wakanda in full and it is every bit as glorious as Civil War promised. Director Ryan Coogler and his production team have created the Wakanda of our dreams, futuristic yet lived in, advanced but believably so.
Wakanda feels real and the reverence given to Wakanda by the characters gives it a regal aura worthy of the battles fought to defend it. I especially enjoyed the critical debate at the heart of both Wakanda and its King regarding just how much of Wakanda should be known to the world. There is genuine weight to the conflict T’Challa faces over whether the life-altering tech created by his genius sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), should be shared with the rest of the world.
The plot of Black Panther is exceptionally well-crafted with terrific conflict and awesome adventure scenes. A chase scene set in North Korea, heavily featured in the film’s marketing campaign, does not disappoint in the film, it exceeds the awesomeness of the trailer, embellishing the action with suspense and humor. T’Challa is at the heart of the scene, chasing after the villainous Klaue (Andy Serkis), but it is Wakanda’s greatest warrior, General Okoye (Danai Gurira) who steals the scene with her badassery.
While the racial aspect of Black Panther stands out, the gender politics of Black Panther have their own weight and significance. King T’Challa is surrounded on all sides by powerful warrior women, led by Okoye and her legion of guards, badder than any tribal force in Wakanda, T'Challa's mother, Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, and of course Nakia, who I mentioned is Wakanda’s top spy.
The fact that young Black children have a hero to look up to with the strength and character of T’Challa is historic, but so is the number of incredible women in Black Panther who create heroes for a generation of empowered young Black girls. Black Panther should not have to carry this historic weight, but it does, and it carries it with confidence and pride.
Black Panther ranks among the best of the Marvel movie franchise, alongside the original Iron Man, the first Avengers outing and Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2 in the way the film combines adventure, excitement, and honest to goodness filmmaking chops. Black Panther is a movie first, a comic book movie second. Ryan Coogler made sure that he had characters worthy of this effort and then set about creating a remarkable, exciting, blockbuster world for them to inhabit.
Black Panther has historic significance for its place in Black film history at the movies but it is also a genuine, all around, all audience blockbuster with the requisite thrills and humor to stand with the best of the genre, regardless of the identity politics at play.