Lest anyone assume that it was impossible for a studio like Marvel, relentlessly branded to the point that each film could be made via stencil, to ever truly evolve within the restrictive franchise framework, along comes Black Panther to break that mold in so many ways that, if nothing else, it deserves utmost reverence. It also happens to be a vivid and rollicking comic-cinema joy ride, taking us to new worlds, introducing us to new faces and personalities, showing us new action, and reconceiving traditional notions of the heroic template.
Representation is the overriding motif of cinema that is only noticed by those that find themselves on the outside. Whatever image is dominant becomes the norm, and everything else becomes niche. Since time immemorial, “white” and “male” have been the defaults, used and re-used on a continual loop in all forms of American media as a stand-in for all of humanity, while consumers were expected to see themselves through this “universal” prism. It makes sense that the title Black Panther harkens back to radical activism (though its comic origin pre-dates the organization), for its mere existence is revolutionary, not only centering a franchise tentpole on a black superhero, but with a black director, black screenwriters, and a cast populated almost exclusively with people of color, several of whom are strong and heroic women. Filmic representation as we know it is flipped on its head, such a conscious and pointed reversal of what we’ve been groomed to expect that surely there will be an uproar from the expectant snowflakes. But they will be drowned out by a torrent of thrills, raves, and box-office receipts.
Most extraordinary about this revolution is how it doesn’t rest on the laurel of representation, but pushes further to explore human dynamics within this reimagined world. In the Marvel universe, Wakanda, presumed to be a Third World nation in Africa, is actually an isolated and shrouded fortress of technological progress. As the place of origin for Vibranium, the rarest and most precious metal in Marvel lore, Wakanda possesses the most advanced civilization on the planet, but it insulates itself from the outside world, refusing to take in refugees from disadvantaged countries, opting against insinuation in broader world conflicts even among its ally nations. Such a dynamic could not be more relevant for our modern reality, in which inclusive globalism is pitted against paranoid nationalism, and the middle ground has shrunken to a point of insignificance. Wakandans are far less bloviating in their nationalist sentiments than the current American regime, but the essence of the conflict is the same: the world’s most advanced nation could open its doors and broaden its reach to make life better for those in need, but instead chooses to sequester its privileges.
This struggle is inherited by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly anointed King of Wakanda, after his father was killed during a U.N. Summit bombing, events depicted in Captain America: Civil War. He returns home to assume the mantle of the king, and with it, the role of Black Panther, guardian of Wakanda, whose suit is made of Vibranium and whose powers are imbued by a secret Wakandan herb. By virtue of having the character introduced in an earlier MCU film, screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole are able to bypass most of the redundant origin story material and build their own world, obviously with clear connections to the broader MCU but entirely its own in terms of design and tone. Black Panther’s story isn’t one of origin as much as ascendance and understanding. When confronted with his father’s shrouded past by way of an insurgent Wakandan-American enemy (Michael B. Jordan) who feels, rightly, that his ancestral nation has betrayed its descendants abroad, T’Challa is forced to wrestle with his country’s role in world affairs and the responsibilities he must shoulder as its powerful leader.
All this messy moral and diplomatic intrigue builds a framework for a viscerally exciting action blast, powered by equal parts invention and diversity, and in today’s world, they are one in the same. Coogler is also the film’s director, and his skills are growing with each subsequent project to support an already-enormous creative vision. His ability to build palpable tension with varied techniques and a pulsating soundtrack are the kind of singular artistic elements that have been largely absent from the carefully regimented MCU, where even its most independent voices are at least somewhat tamed by the larger enterprise. Black Panther is a step forward on multiple fronts, from a world-building dynamic that exposes viewers to broader culture, to a soundtrack that infuses the traditional superhero orchestrations with modern beats, to a canvas that is not only dynamic in terms of color but also gender. As Black Panther battles his villainous hoards, flanked at all sides by a trio of powerful, engaging women, it’s not just powerful because it’s awesome, and it’s not just awesome because it’s powerful. This is progress fused with artistry, exhilaration galvanized by importance.