Some, perhaps including Marvel Studios, would argue that Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all their efforts. I would counter that Ryan Coogler‘s Black Panther is that culmination. It’s a movie that couldn’t have been made in Phase One or even Phase Two, and yet the success of the Marvel brand, the way the well-oiled machine works at its best, the dissolution of the story group in favor of visionary filmmakers, and a willingness to embrace politics rather than shy away from controversy made Black Panther such a rousing success. Yes, it does have some of the standard Marvel quirks and ticks, and yet in retrospect, those help provide the foundation that allows the rest of the film to shine.
The central conflict in Black Panther oddly reflects where Marvel is right now—how do you proceed when you’re on top? Unlike heroes who came from nothing (Captain America, Ant-Man, Spider-Man) or heroes who had to learn humility (Iron Man, Thor, Star-Lord, Doctor Strange), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is on a completely separate path. He’s technically on top, born to the throne. He’s also a good man, willing to listen to the council of others and striving to be better. T’Challa’s struggle is a struggle for the fate of a people, something no other Marvel hero has had to wrestle with in such concrete terms. And the fate of Wakanda, and therefore the world, becomes the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan)—what do you do when you have power?
One of the clever things Marvel did here was not making an origin story. Not only was T’Challa introduced in Captain America: Civil War, but we don’t spend time learning about his training or watching him grow up at his father’s side. The mantle of Black Panther is thrust upon him, but we don’t need to see montages of him doing martial arts or becoming friends with Okoye (Danai Gurira). The world is baked in, and that trust carries over to the audience who wants to explore what’s already been fully built rather than see what’s under construction. And since Wakanda is already a dominant power but isolated, the movie is free to explore the concept of what it means to do good.
That’s why Killmonger is such an effective villain. It’s not just Jordan’s charisma (although he certainly has that in spades, and I have yet to attend a screening where the audience didn’t cheer at the “Hey, Auntie” line). It’s not that he thinks he’s the hero and doing the right thing. It’s that his argument has merit. His methods may be despicable and reckless, but he’s not wrong that a powerful nation has an obligation to engage with the world. He is wrong that imperialism is the answer, but we can actually understand his motives and reasoning rather than, “Well, I’m sure he thinks he’s the good guy.” We see why he can win people like W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) to his cause.
This is how far Marvel has come in the past ten years. It’s not just having the most superheroes or creating dazzling environments. It’s creating a superhero narrative that goes beyond, “It’s good to be good, so be good.” Black Panther is a heavy lift in so many different ways, and yet it looks effortless, rarely calling attention to how much work had to be done within the superhero genre and in the real world to bring a primarily black cast and an afro-centric future to the big screen and make it the biggest film of the year thus far. That is a towering accomplishment by any metric, and one that should serve as an inspiration to other studios more than “How many superheroes can we pile into a clown car?”