This Black Panther review contains spoilers.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Panther turns out to be one of the most influential movies of the decade. That may seem like a grandiose statement, but look at Ryan Coogler’s Marvel film in the context of the larger blockbuster landscape, and you’ll see he’s doing what no one else has really attempted. Yes, Will Smith was the king of the blockbuster for a time, but it was a success centered on one performer. With Black Panther, Coogler has gifted the world a look at not only how a superhero movie can get ferociously political, but also to shine a light on characters who are too often relegated to the sidelines. Every single person in Black Panther, hero or villain, has agency, a purpose, and something worth saying. And they all do it in a meticulously designed world that’s as lush and as vibrant as anything we’ve seen on screen this century. These overpowering strengths are enough to overshadow when the Marvel machinery rears its head and tries to make Black Panther smaller than it is.
Kicking off with a couple prologues explaining the history of Wakanda and the Black Panther before moving to 1992 to see a young King T’Chaka confront his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) about smuggling the precious metal Vibranium out of their homeland. N’Jobu believes that Wakandans owe it the outside world, especially black people, to use their superior technology to fight back. But T’Chaka refuses and is forced to kill N’Jobu. We cut to the present day and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to become the new King of Wakanda following the death of T’Chaka during the events of Captain America: Civil War. After earning his crown by combat, he learns that arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who attacked Wakanda decades ago, has been spotted. Determined to bring the fugitive to justice, T’Challa, with the help of General Okoye (Danai Gurira), spy/ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and his brilliant sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), goes to take down Klaue, but gets swept up in a larger plan by N’Jobu’s son, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to realize his father’s vision.
The politics at the center of Black Panther are what give the movie its urgency and power. While other Marvel films have occasionally flirted with political ideas (The Winter Soldier with surveillance, Civil War with government oversight), Black Panther tackles them head on by focusing on the cost and purpose of isolationism. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole use Wakanda both as a vision and as a symbol. As a vision, it’s a beautiful realization of what an African people could be given the resources and removed from the colonization and subjugation at the hands of white nations. It’s a glorious, “What If?” and taken on its own terms, it’s a wondrous land that we want to keep visiting.
But Coogler doesn’t ignore the politics that have made Wakanda so successful. It’s a nation built on isolationism, and that isolationism mirrors the “America First” policies of America’s right wing. It’s the notion that in order for a nation to thrive, it must be cut off from the rest of the world and focused only on its own survival. Killmonger may be an extremist in his belief that the only way for Wakanda to thrive is as a conquering empire, but he’s not wrong that the country’s isolationism is harmful and self-serving. He’s a villain whose viewpoint is rooted in truth, and while we disagree with his methods and extremism, he’s right that isolationism in a global community is ultimately cruel to people who need help.
When Black Panther is digging into these tough political questions through the lens of a spy thriller (Shuri is basically Q to T’Challa’s Bond), the movie fires on all cylinders. It has a perfect sense of identity while forging a new path for strong, powerful characters who still have a personality rather than simply displaying physical strength as a substitute for identity. If Marvel announced tomorrow we were getting spinoffs for Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri, I’d be ridiculously excited because all of the characters leave a deep impression, especially within the world of Wakanda.