Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) has joined forces with co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) to take on a groundbreaking Marvel Comics character who first appeared in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. While keeping with the traditions set forth throughout the character’s existence, they manage to give him an impressive facelift for the modern era.
After a bit of backstory on the formation of the nation of Wakanda, including how the first Black Panther came to be, the story jumps to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in an overall stellar performance) as he prepares to assume the throne in Wakanda following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. This scene singlehandedly establishes the beauty and majesty the Wakandans have managed to create by remaining isolated from the outside world. It also acts as a brief primer on the Wakandan tribes and tensions within. As the story progresses, it connects back to the introductory scenes through a script that is well-written, although subtly flawed as well.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the film is its ability to portray numerous strong female characters without forcing them upon you or making them seem like they’re just there for the sake of being strong female characters. Each of the four main females feels naturally placed. First, there is Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, and her elegant grace seems to channel a more serious version of Madge Sinclair from Coming to America. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is self-assured, intelligent, and strong—a perfect model for other 16-year-old girls. Okoye, fiercely played by Danai Gurira, holds her own as the leader of the traditionally all-female king’s guard. Finally, T’Challa’s former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is different from so many other romantic interests in that she does not need a man to define her presence—she has presence enough of her own.
Not so well-rounded are the villains. While Andy Serkis gives a solid (if a bit over-the-top) performance as Ulysses Klaue, Michael B. Jordan fails to connect as solidly with the audience in the role of Killmonger—especially when compared to his work in Creed. His performance is fine, but there is something both hurried and drawn-out about his role. It is almost as if a character from the 1970s was lifted from the comic books and placed in the much more sophisticated modern era of writing.
Fortunately, this does not detract from the overall story, which blends a coming-of-age tale, as T’Challa separates who he is from the role he owes his people, and social awareness quite well. Usually. There are moments when, unlike the female characters, the social statements on both sides of the fence feel a bit forced. By the end of the film, though, it all blends together into the message that exclusionism of any kind will create problems. The multiple layers of exclusionism are subtler than the overall message, and this improves the end result.
In the end, Black Panther leaves viewers with the feeling that they have just seen 135 minutes of pure comic-book fun, entirely well-acted and mostly well-written. There are virtually no moments when the pace seems inappropriate, which is rare for any movie but especially unusual in a comic-related one. It will certainly be remembered as one of the better Avengers-related films of the entire series.