“I have seen gods fly. I have seen men build weapons that I couldn’t even imagine. I have seen aliens drop from the sky. But I have never seen anything like this.” So mutters astonished C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) as he first sets eyes on the shrouded African country of Wakanda, a veritable El Dorado that mined a meteorite’s worth of vibranium to become the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, and the host country for the best Marvel movie so far, by far. He speaks for us all.
Nobody has ever seen anything like “Black Panther” — not just an entire civilization built from the metal stuff inside Captain America’s shield, and not even just a massive superhero movie populated almost entirely by black people, but also a Marvel film that actually feels like it takes place in the real world.
Over the course of three phases, 11 years, and 18 installments, Marvel has taken us everywhere from the Norse kingdom of Asgard, to a living planet called Ego, and a literally time-less void known as the Dark Dimension. And yet, those fantastical adventures are virtually indistinguishable from the episodes that are (mostly) set on Earth. Despite the fact that “Ant-Man” is rooted in San Francisco, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is an ode to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, and “The Avengers” climaxes with a “Battle of New York” that looks curiously like Cleveland, all of these films still feel like glimpses into a parallel universe made out of plastic — a bizarro alternate timeline (complete with its own 9/11) where everyone has been reverse-engineered from their own action figures.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven itself to be exactly that, a self-contained snow globe that’s wrapped in spandex and lined with money. It has little sense of history beyond that which it’s created for itself; the moral imperatives that divide the Avengers tend to exist in a vacuum, while the colonialist undertones rumbling beneath “Thor: Ragnarok” are easy to miss for those who haven’t been conditioned to feel them.
“Black Panther” is different. It’s the first one of these films that flows with a genuine sense of culture and identity, memory and musicality. It’s the first one of these films that doesn’t merely reckon with power and subjugation in the abstract, but also gives those ideas actual weight by grafting them onto specific bodies and confronting the historical ways in which they’ve shaped our universe. Last, but certainly not least, it’s also the first black superhero movie since the dawn of the genre’s seemingly endless golden age (or at least since that one where Will Smith hurled a giant whale at a bunch of innocent sailors).
As such, it was always going to be a landmark moment for representation, but writer-director Ryan Coogler doesn’t leave it at that. “Black Panther” might be the most visually striking chapter of this series, but its success isn’t just a matter of optics; its use of color is never simply cosmetic. An unabashed and mega-budgeted work of Afro-futurism, this multiplex entertainment leverages an imagined reality to broadly reflect upon the actual reality of the black experience(s). In making a movie that so lucidly allows one group of people to see themselves on screen, Coogler has created the first Marvel movie in which anyone can see themselves on screen. That’s an accomplishment all viewers can appreciate — one that gives new depth to the overarching themes of the MCU, finally grounding this franchise with the kind of stakes that it needs to support its cosmic scale.
“Black Panther” begins with a brief history of Wakanda, an outwardly unremarkable place located somewhere along the border between Kenya and Nambia. But what looks like a “shithole country” is actually a thriving society that’s been overlooked by the colonialist hegemony responsible for crippling so many of its neighbors; the people of Wakanda have protected their natural resources and native cultures by making it seem as though they don’t have much of either. When prince T’Challa (a stoic, nuanced Chadwick Boseman) returns home to mourn his father (killed in “Captain America: Civil War”) and ascend the throne, he’s inclined to keep tradition, even though he recognizes that the world is changing.
It’s easy to understand why he would fight for Wakanda to stay the same: The place is absolutely incredible. Even in 2D, it pops right off the screen. Despite perilously under-lighting a few nighttime sequences, cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots the country so full of life that it’s genuinely hard to believe she didn’t film a single frame of it in Africa (for a movie that’s full of sloppy CG, the environmental green screen work is astonishing). From its rolling plains and their cartoonish war rhinos(!) to its bustling marketplace and Day-Glo dream skies, Wakanda is almost as well-realized as the five tribes of people who inhabit it.
This is a story in which almost every character feels as though they continue to exist off-screen. That’s true of the newly widowed Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who frets over the future of Wakanda in a 3D-printed, Zulu-inspired, future-chic wardrobe. It’s true of Shuri (Letitia Wright), the brilliant young princess who invents all of the country’s vibranium-driven technology and makes you forget all about Tony Stark. And Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s warrior ex, who tells her king the honest truth and leads Wakanda’s awesomely badass all-female special forces, the Dora Milaje. And Okoye (Danai Gurira), the most awesomely badass of them all, who uses her wig as a weapon before launching into the one brief flurry of fight choreography so clean it could almost sneak into “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” And W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya!), a terse defender with conflicting desires.
These are people who have never been oppressed, in large part because good luck with that.
This review continues on the next page.