Once again Marvel Studios lives up to its name, delivering a film and a world that is truly marvellous in Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed) and featuring an all-star line-up of black actors, the film is both a celebration of African culture and a thrilling entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
The film begins with an animated sequence outlining the history of the nation of Wakanda, which was founded by the first Black Panther after he harnessed the power of vibranium (an alien metal harvested from a meteorite that crashed on the African continent) and united the five native tribes. This history lesson is followed by a scene set in Oakland in 1992 where Prince N’Jobu, an undercover Wakandan agent, is confronted by King T’Chaka about his militaristic views. N’Jobu believes that Wakanda should share its technology with people of African descent across the globe to help them overthrow their oppressors. The scene sets up the ideals at odds in Wakanda: isolation and strong independence, or a more open and active role in world affairs.
The rest of the film takes place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to Wakanda to assume the throne left vacant after his father’s death in Vienna. He is supported by his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his technologically savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the general of Wakanda’s royal guard – the Dora Milaje – Okoye (Danai Gurira). It isn’t long before T’Challa’s rule is thrown into chaos by the reemergence of noted arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and the arrival of a Wakandan outcast named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) who seeks to overthrow T’Challa.
There are so many things to praise in Black Panther, but foremost among them is the cast. As T’Challa, Boseman carries himself with the air of a confident leader, but is still able to convey the struggles that any new ruler would face. But it’s the core female cast that really carries the film. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright steal every scene they’re in, and thankfully they feature prominently throughout. It’s already been confirmed that Wright and Gurira will be appearing in Avengers: Infinity War this summer, so it’s hopeful that their characters will have long lives in the MCU going forward. It’s also worth highlighting Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Killmonger. Marvel has a history of coming up short with their villains, but you could argue that the vengeful warrior is the best baddie since Loki. It’s refreshing to have an antagonist with solid motivations and a plan that doesn’t involve an Earth-shattering laser beam.
Tying the whole film together is the outstanding production design. The costumes, hair, and makeup are simply stunning, infusing the world with vibrant colours and patterns inspired by traditional African designs. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison captures these electric scenes in amazing detail, and on top of it all is Ludwig Göransson’s unique score that infuses a typical superhero soundscape with African instruments. No Marvel film has won an Oscar, but Black Panther gives the studio their best chance to break that streak in the production categories next year.
With Infinity War on the horizon, the MCU’s 10th year is going to be its biggest yet. But while expectations are that Infinity War will be the best Marvel film ever, I think Black Panther is already wearing that crown.