Perhaps Marvel was tired of waiting for the first James Bond who was also a person of color, because that’s pretty much what we get with Black Panther.
True, this isn’t a straight-up spy flick. Set largely in Africa and focusing on a royal succession, it borrows equally from The Lion King. Altogether, this is more like Simba 007. But Black Panther does have enough Bond in it to satisfy fans of that series: a showdown at an underground casino; a lab full of weaponized gadgets; a villain intent on world domination. The product placement involves Lexus rather than Jaguar, but you can’t have everything.
What we do get is Chadwick Boseman, an African-American actor, in the lead role. But that isn’t the only thing that makes Black Panther a welcome step forward. This is a cinematically holistic work of diversity, in which cultural identity has been carefully woven into every element of the movie: a cast almost exclusively made up of people of color; a costume design based on traditional African jewelry and garments; a soundtrack that, at its best, puts a damper on the usual orchestral bombast and allows chanting or drumming to dominate. Black Panther is “black,” to be sure, and as a result brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe a cavalcade of aesthetic colors. When T’Challa (Boseman) stands before the various tribes that make up the kingdom of Wakanda—their vibrant clothes, accessories, and weapons creating an exquisite rainbow—we get a sense of what our comic-book movies have been missing.
Some background for those of you who don’t remember our introduction to Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. In the wake of his father’s sudden death, T’Challa has been crowned king of Wakanda, and as such adopts the guise and abilities of its protective warrior: Black Panther. Not long into his reign, however, challenges arise in the form of an arms dealer (Andy Serkis, in the flesh) and an American mercenary (Michael B. Jordan) who have teamed up in pursuit of vibranium, the precious element that lies beneath Wakanda’s soil and powers its technological utopia.
This is probably one more villain than we need, a symptom of a script (co-written by Joe Robert Cole and director Ryan Coogler) that’s generally overstuffed. Andy Serkis is fun—a gleeful force of chaos—but Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is the far more compelling character. Jordan takes the righteous anger and underdog fury he exhibited in Coogler’s previous films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, and puts them into a comic-book blender, making Killmonger a charismatic bad guy for whom we almost want to root. (Without saying too much, I’ll only note that he has legitimate reasons, beyond money, to disrupt the status quo in Wakanda.)
Black Panther brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe a cavalcade of aesthetic colors.
In fact, Jordan is so arresting onscreen that some might say he steals Boseman’s thunder. But one thing I like about Black Panther—and Boseman’s performance—is that both are willing to commit to the solemn nature of its title character, a man who takes his royal duties seriously, especially because they’ve fallen on his shoulders too soon. One of the film’s more moving moments comes during an elaborate ritual in which T’Challa visits the “ancestral plane,” where he has a conversation with his late father about the burden they’ve both had to bear. (Cue Mufasa.) You can feel that weight throughout the movie, even in how Boseman moves: thoughtfully, carefully, with purpose.
Coogler makes that scene in the ancestral plane one of the more visually entrancing parts of Black Panther. The ritual involves burying T’Challa in red sand, who then emerges from the earth in an African savannah where the sky has an otherworldly, purplish glow. Less successful, from a directing standpoint, are many of the action scenes. Although an early showdown atop a waterfall—in which T’Challa must face off against a challenger from another tribe—has some of the single-take elegance of the boxing matches in Creed, too many of the other big set pieces are chaotic and overly edited. The final showdown between T’Challa and Killmonger, set in yet another dreary CGI space with no tactile sense of danger, falls especially flat.
There is one figure who stands out even in the most frantic moments, however. Danai Gurira plays Okoye, the no-nonsense leader of Wakanda’s royal guard. With her shaved, tattooed head, neck encircled in rings of gold, and fearsome spear, she commands every scene she’s in. Okoye easily gets the film’s best action moment while riding, like a perched phoenix, on the top of a speeding car through the streets of South Korea. She alone is proof that diversity, at its best, has more than social value; when a movie wears its cultural identity with this sort of ease and creativity, there’s a thrilling aesthetic element to it, as well.