As the last instalment before the heavily anticipated Infinity War, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther must walk the line between building the excitement to the aforementioned climax of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It must also provide a satisfying standalone story for a character introduced in a movie that wasn’t his own, and continue Marvel’s current trend of releasing more director-driven productions. It’s safe to say that the movie more than delivers.
Set a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which included the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is left with the great responsibility of ruling his hyper-advanced, isolated African kingdom while being its super-powered protector: The Black Panther. However, his reign is threatened when a challenger, who goes by the mantle “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), seeks to overthrow Wakanda’s protector and destabilise its way of life.
The Marvel formula is well-known: protagonist-centred, light-hearted humour, inventive set-pieces and references to the wider universe. Coogler takes this formula into deeper and more daring territory in a similar fashion to how he handled the Rocky franchise with Creed. Black Panther doesn’t just focus on its protagonist: an entire new setting is realised in a way that manages to be both alien and familiar, while the royal family drama shows shades of Shakespeare re-contextualised for the contemporary moment. Seriously, think a re-imagined Hamlet with colonial undertones that doesn’t shy away from making its protagonists uncomfortable with their own ideologies and the legacy they’ve inherited.
A lot of what makes the movie so great hinges on Jordan’s Killmonger being the most complex, well-acted and uncomfortably sympathetic antagonist Marvel has ever produced, breaking their problem of boring villains.
There’s more to be said about the film than how it fits in with the MCU and the contemporary direction of cinema itself; it’s also just a damn fine movie. Aesthetically, Wakanda is beautiful, the Kendrick Lamar-driven soundtrack furthers the movie’s uniqueness, and the supporting cast makes the film tick just as much as its eponymous hero. Interestingly, the weaker aspects of the movie are the more expected Marvel tropes; the action scenes aren’t as groundbreaking as the rest of the movie, and not all of its jokes land.
Although Black Panther is held back by its obligations to franchise expectations, at its best, it’s a superhero experience that takes its established universe into new thematic and narrative territory, conscious of its own cultural importance.