Most of all — in a bonafide Marvel rarity — it’s true of the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (but definitely not his girlfriend, who doesn’t even get to deliver a single line of dialogue before she’s disappeared forever). Played by Michael B. Jordan in a swaggering performance that burns with the same fire he and Coogler lit in “Creed,” Erik is an American-raised Wakandan exile who kills for a living and lives for the chance to avenge the historic and ongoing wrongs that have been brought to bear against black people across the world. He resents the fact that Wakanda has removed itself from the narrative of slavery and imperialism, and he wants to use the nation’s power to flip that script in the most violent ways. (“I’ma burn it all!”) This is a guy who’s literally covered himself in death, patterning his body with a new keloid scar for every life he’s taken.
And yet: T’Challah recognizes his anger. Boseman’s face softens with sympathy when this stranger from the Oakland projects shows up to claim the throne. Black Panther understands where Killmonger is coming from, if only to a certain extent, and it’s fascinating to watch a film of this size casually reckon with (or even merely allude to the existence of) the complex dynamic between Africans and their extended diaspora. The villain speaks in the language of slaves and oppressors, the hero wants to rewrite those roles from scratch, and the friction between their differing ideas of power is manifest through character-driven conflict that feels rooted to the ground they’re fighting over. It doesn’t matter that you know who wins in the end, or that the movie seldom deviates from its staid “Macbeth” structure, because being Black Panther and becoming Black Panther are two very different things.
But even though there are no giant lasers shooting from the sky, no armies of anonymous humanoid lizards running through the streets — even though none of these people seem to know who Thanos is, let alone waste their time talking about how a lazy purple space clown is on his way to Earth or whatever — the Marvel brand is still strong with this one. That’s both a blessing and a cruse.
On one hand, the film’s cultural currency is largely derived from the fact that it’s taking a seat at one of the world’s most exclusive tables; “Black Panther” is such a game-changer for black representation in part because it’s speaking in the hyper-codified language of the world’s biggest movie franchise. If it sometimes feels like the movie is too good to bother with the usual bullshit (e.g. a Stan Lee cameo), those signature Marvel touches help indicate to underserved black audiences that all of this — this universal language — belongs to them, too.
On the other hand, it means that “Black Panther” has to deal with the house style. To a certain extent, Coogler is able to overcome the blandness that comes with the territory, leaning on the specificity of Wakandan culture to overcome some of these movies’ usual weaknesses. The ecstatic costumes and lush cinematography are both impressive, but the film’s music is the real miracle here. A far cry from the profoundly generic slop that’s been used to score the previous Marvel stuff, Ludwig Göransson delivers a singular piece of work. Weaving South African and Senegalese drumming into the base of his compositions, Göransson creates a prickly, percussive sound that rumbles with anxiety and power. And then, just to rub it in, the film tops that off with a handful of original tracks from Kendrick Lamar and his pals. “Infinity War” might have hundreds of superheroes, but it won’t have that.
And then there are the action scenes. A longtime issue for the MCU, where the preference for plastic cartoon violence tends to result in numbing flurries of bad CG, and “Black Panther” only makes it worse. Given the gravitas of Coogler’s storytelling, and the visceral physicality that he brought to the boxing scenes in “Creed,” this comes as a very unpleasant surprise. It’s not just that the choreography in “Black Panther” lacks coherence, but also that every fight scene is undone by awful CG. From a weightless car chase in South Korea (rescued by a few nice character moments) to a climactic brawl that looks like it was rendered on a Nintendo 64, the lifeless and glaringly fake action work is more galling than usual because everything else in this movie feels so believable.
But there is more that unites us than divides us, more about “Black Panther” that works than doesn’t. Even at its most artificial, this is still a thrilling, well-realized story of self-determination, told with real purpose and rare confidence. You believe in T’Challa, you believe in Wakanda, and you believe — maybe for the first time — that the MCU actually matters. It’s hard for a good movie to survive that kind of studio process, just as it’s hard for a good man to be king. Hard, but apparently not impossible.
“Black Panther” opens in theaters on February 16th.