In Marvel comics, Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July of 1966 (predating the creation of the Black Panther political party by about three months). He was the first black superhero leading his own line of comics.
In the MCU (the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Black Panther first appeared two years ago in Captain America: Civil War on team Iron Man, not because he was all that supportive of Iron Man’s point of view, but because he believed the Winter Soldier killed his father, and the Winter Soldier was on Team Captain America. Eventually he learned the truth (that Helmut Zemo killed his father) and ended up taking Bucky back to Wakanda at the end of that movie for mental reconditioning, healing, and recovery, because let’s face it – Bucky was a mess.
This movie begins with a pre-credit sequence detailing the history of Wakanda in a story told from father to son illustrated by what I would call Vibranium smart-sand, which pops up again and again in the movie. Wakanda was founded by five tribes over and around a Vibranium meteorite crash site. Originally the tribes were at war, but a member of the Golden Tribe had a vision visit from the Panther goddess Bast, who told him to eat the heart-shaped herb and be infused with panther powers – he became the first king of Wakanda and unified the tribes, all except a sixth tribe called the Jabari, who moved out to the mountains, uninterested in being ruled.
The story then picks up almost immediately after the end of Civil War as T’Challa is heading back home for his own coronation, and stops along the way to pick up his ex, Nakia. Nakia is a Wakandan “war-dog”, one of the spies they send out into the world. She is mid-mission, infiltrating a group that seems to be kidnapping young girls. T’Challa interrupts, and asks her to come home with him, much to the amusement of Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje (the all-female warriors that protect the king and family. They head back home, and we get our first glorious look at all of Wakanda.
After meeting with his mother, Queen Ramonda, and his sister, Shuri - T’Challa goes through the ritual of being stripped of his powers by his advisor Zuri to welcome any challenges from any of the other tribes (River, Merchant, Mining, or Border – he’s from the Golden Tribe). None of them want to challenge, but the Jabari tribe comes down out of the mountains, and their leader, M’Baku challenges.
Okay – from here on – spoiler alert, I will not ruin anything major, but just be forewarned.
After forcing M’Baku to yield, T’Challa gets to ingest more of the heart-shaped herb to get back his panther powers and visit the ancestral plane to have a chat with his dead father about how best to be king. The conversation isn’t all that helpful, but the plane is beautiful. T’Challa also gets to walk around Wakanda, trying to talk Nakia into staying with him and potentially being his queen (she’s not interested - she loves him, but knows that she can do more to help people outside the very closed borders of Wakanda), as well as visit with his best friend W’Kabi, who is leading the Border Tribe warriors and helping raise their war rhinos. Yes – war rhinos. Okoye gives everyone the heads-up that Ulysses Klaue has resurfaced to sell some Vibranium he pulled out of a British museum with the help of mercenary Erik Stevens. After picking up some awesome new tech from Shuri (who on top of being the princess is also a genius inventor) T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye head to Bosun in South Korea to interrupt the sale of the Vibranium from Klaue to Everett Ross, undercover CIA guy. Recognizing each other, T’Challa and Ross first try to convince each other to back down, then help each other out. After an incredible action sequence, Klaue is rescued by Stevens, and T’Challa has to make some decisions as to what step to take next and what kind of king to be, whether to continue to keep Wakanda isolated and alone as they have been in the past, or to reach out and assist those struggling in other parts of the world.
From this point forward, I’m not going to say anything else about the plot – you need to see it. Director Ryan Coogler has assembled a powerhouse of a movie that is absolutely a Marvel comic movie, but is also something else. The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, and I was surprised at how great the action was! Coogler helmed Fruitvale Station and Creed prior to this, both of which are excellent dramas with tremendous performances, but neither has what I would call typical action sequences. Black Panther has an incredible small battle in the beginning, an amazing fight sequence followed by a car chase in South Korea, multiple wonderful hand to hand combat pieces, and a giant final action set piece that is astounding, even if it has a touch too much CGI. I really enjoyed all of the characters, and Coogler outdid himself by assembling one of the greatest casts ever.
- Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, and really does provide the calm, stoic, heart to this movie. His performance is understated when compared to some others, but that fits with the character as T’Challa struggles with his new role. The one scene he really gets to let go and show some emotion is in his second visit to the ancestral plane, when he confronts his father about a lie, and error he made. T’Challa realizes that his father is not flawless, and simply following that lead as king is perhaps not the best path. At that point he truly decides to be his own type of king, and really shines from that moment on. Boseman is exceptional, and has signed a five-movie deal with Marvel, so I cannot wait to see him in Infinity War, and the next Black Panther movie.
- Michael B. Jordan plays Erik Killmonger (Stevens), and by now you’ve heard that he is one of the most compelling Marvel villains to date. He’s compelling because while he seems fueled by rage and hate, the cause of that rage and hate is completely understandable. His goal to arm oppressed people of color everywhere with Wakandan Vibranium weapons makes sense when you consider where he came from, and what he has had to overcome. Encountering his anger allows T’Challa to revisit his father’s policy of isolation, and formulate a path that incorporates some compromise between the two viewpoints.
- Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, who is very clear on the fact that she believes Wakanda should be doing more to help people all over the world. She is refusing to stay and be T’Challa’s queen because she knows how useful she can be in other places. It will be interesting to see what happens with her character as she does become a bit of a villain in the comics.
- Danai Gurira plays Okoye, and she stole every scene she was in. Those who watch The Walking Dead know she is completely badass as Michonne, even when stuck under a terrible wig. Here, unburdened by terrible wigs except in one scene (which is brilliant), she is phenomenal. She absolutely is the greatest warrior in Wakanda, something that is never in question, and her devotion to the throne is stunning, even when she herself wants to question it. Her non-verbals are the best part of her performance, not just in the hand to hand action sequences, but in the side-eye and glances she gives to other characters. She’s exceptional.
- Daniel Kaluuya plays W’Kabi, and he does a great job, but he’s just a little too understated for his character’s (spoiler alert) loyalty flip. Klaue killed his parents, and he’s been after him for thirty years, and when T’Challa fails to bring Klaue back, W’Kabi seems disappointed – and I think a little more anger would have helped to make his sudden association with Killmonger later on feel less sudden.
- Angela Basset plays Ramonda and is every bit the Queen you expect her to be. Proud of her son, then terrified when Killmonger drags her husband’s past errors back home with him.
- Letitia Wright plays Shuri, and every scene that Gurira has not already stolen, she steals. She is absolutely one of, if not the, best parts of the movie. She is completely natural and believable as the younger sister of the king, who is absolutely the smartest person in the kingdom, responsible for all the tech, weapons, transportation, and all other devices used by everyone. She is very much the “Q” of Wakanda, but so much more in that she also will not hesitate to join a battle when necessary. She is absolutely the star of this movie, and that becomes even more important when considering all the little girls who will see this movie and want to be like her. In the comics, she eventually becomes Black Panther for a while – I really hope she gets to do that in the movies as well.
- Florence Kasumba plays Ayo, and she’s the one Dora Milaje who was featured in Civil War (“Move. Or you will be moved.”). Here, she’s number two to Okoye, and is striking and proficient in battle. She also has some interesting story lines in the comics that they may bring into later movies.
- Winston Duke plays M’Baku, and at no point is he called Man-Ape, as he is in the comics – which was a good choice on their part. He’s large, imposing, and after losing his challenge in the beginning, comes back to help save T’Challa after his loss to Killmonger. At no point was I ready for M’Baku to be hilarious, helpful, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie!
- Forest Whitaker plays Zuri, royal advisor, and heart-shaped-herb grower. Eventually he has to tell T’Challa about his role in the whole N’Joba/Killmonger backstory, which he really regrets.
- Martin Freeman plays Everett Ross, and provides just the right amount of comic relief in some tense sequences. I found him completely believable as a quiet company man who is used to being the smartest man in the room, but can also adjust when he learns he is not.
- Sterling K. Brown plays N’Jobu, King T’Chaka’s brother who in the early 90s was stationed as a war dog in America when they were both younger. He becomes angry and sad at race relations in Oakland, where he is located, and he first comes up with the plan to give Wakandan weapons to oppressed people. However, he makes the mistake of partnering up with Klaue to steal the vibranium from Wakanda – trusting Klaue was a mistake, as he blew up a bomb at the border, killing many people.
- Andy Serkis plays Ulysses Klaue, and (spoiler alert) he doesn’t make it through this movie, which is really too bad, because he is really entertaining. He gets to be huge and over-the-top with his performance because those around him have to be more stoic. He’s an out and out moustache-twirling bad guy, but the performance elevates would could have been simply cookie cutter.
- John Kani plays T’Chaka, and while he plays him only on the ancestral plane, that’s important, because that’s where he gives T’Challa advice, or just tries to defend his choices. And the reason the younger version of him in the flashback sequences looks so much like him is that is John’s son.
It is also worth mentioning the costumes, music, and look of this movie. Kendrick Lamar created some really great songs that punctuate different points of the story, and the drums and African-style beats to the score help to round out the feel of the film. The costumes in particular are incredible. Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter ensured that each tribe is given their own trademark color and look, based on traditional African tribal characteristics. My favorite of those was the Lesotho style blankets that the border tribe wear. They are beautiful, but their true purpose is demonstrated once they step into battle – they are actually shield projectors! Every detail of this movie is striking like that and in a really smart play, the movie basically requires multiple viewings so that you can take it all in!
And yes, let’s mention the cultural significance. Similar to Wonder Woman’s significance last year, this movie has the incredible fortune and burden of being ‘just another comic book movie’ - but also the incredibly important first depiction of a black superhero in his own mainstream movie. I love Blade, and those movies were awesome, but I wouldn’t necessarily refer to them as mainstream – and besides, all rated R, so definitely not for kids. Blade curses a lot. Representation matters, and now little kids of all races get to see a non-white hero – and in particular little kids who are black get to see a hero that looks like them in the Cinematic Universe they love. Not only Black Panther himself, but there is a wealth of incredible female roles in this movie for little girls to look up to and admire. They span aspirational aspects from Queen, to Warrior, to Scientist, each more well-rounded and defined than the next. These characters and this movie are incredibly important and overwhelming when you think about it in that light. In fact, the one moment of the move that really made me tear up was the very end, when a little boy walks up to T’Challa, looks at him in amazement, and says, “Who are you?!?” It’s a simple moment, but it’s also incredibly powerful.
10 out of 10 – go see it. If you’re already seen it, go see it again. No, it’s not flawless (there’s a little too much CGI in the end battle, and a couple of beats that don’t flow as smoothly as others), but the few flaws are easily overpowered by the parts that are just incredible.
Bonus – the behind the scenes featurettes that were released did an amazing job of really pulling in an audience before the movie was released, check them out.