[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]t’s hard for a good man to be king.” That’s the advice John Kani’s T’Chaka gives his son, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, as they communicate on the ancestral plane—a sentiment echoed throughout Black Panther. What does one owe one’s country? One’s people? What responsibility do we have to the world at large? But let’s back up a minute.
Black Panther is the latest installment in the Marvel universe, hitting theaters this Friday, February 16, but feels different from any Marvel film I’ve seen. There are connections to the Marvel universe at large, of course—mostly flashbacks and characters from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War—but for the most part, you don’t need to know anything about Marvel (or even superheroes) to enjoy this thought-provoking film. Kendrick Lamar’s original music propels the action forward with energizing beats; Donald and Stephen Glover’s script punch-ups draw genuine laughs, a welcome departure from the usual superhero one-liner fare; costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s Afropunk vision for Wakanda’s tribes light up the screen and provide a richness lacking in most large action films.
Black Panther opens with a helpful history of Wakanda for the uninitiated. Located in Northeast Africa, Wakanda is essentially a utopia—its people have thrived from their access to vibranium, the most powerful element on the planet, which has propelled Wakanda into the future, so to speak; technological advancements abound and a happy, healthy populace thrives. They remain cloaked to the outside world, yet are well aware of what goes on outside Wakanda’s borders. To the world at large, however, Wakanda is simply a poor nation with little resources. This duality remains one of the larger conflicts of the film, as Wakandans differ in their views on how exactly their country should interact with outsiders. As one tribe leader, W’Kabi (played by Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) argues, if you let refugees in your country, your country becomes just like the rest of the world. Why should Wakanda suffer, and give up their precious resources to help others?
In London, we meet the main baddies of the film—the appropriately named Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, and a scenery-chewing Andy Serkis as arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Ex-soldier Killmonger helps Klaue steal a vibranium-laden artifact from a museum, which Klaue will sell to the highest bidder in South Korea.
We see Wakanda for the first time as T’Challa returns home to become the new king following his father’s death. The other tribe leaders can challenge him for the throne, but only one does—M’Baku, leader of the exiled White Gorilla faction, who live off in the borderlands. T’Challa, of course, is victorious and becomes the new king—but it’s not the last time he must defend his throne. The rest of the film centers on whether or not the Wakandans can stop vibranium from getting into the hands of outsiders, and dealing with Killmonger’s claim that he belongs upon the Wakandan throne. T’Challa comes to question what he thought he knew about his father, as well as Wakanda’s staunchly neutral politics.
This is a superhero film, of course, and the action sequences do not disappoint. Nothing is gratuitous, and there aren’t any mysterious, looming sky beams to tackle like we’ve seen in roughly ever superhero film ever made. The fights are inventive, and the camera actually lingers on the action rather than quickly cutting away before we can see a swing or blow connect. This was particularly noticeable during a fantastic fight scene in a South Korean casino, with The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, playing a Wakandan General named Okoye, doing flips and spearing bad guys effortlessly. The stakes feel real, a welcome departure from half-second shots of actors tepidly miming choreography we’ve seen in so many recent action movies.
Above all, Black Panther feels like a lived-in universe. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, a Wakandan spy who happens to be T’Challa’s ex, isn’t simply an old flame. She is a warrior, and wants to share Wakanda’s resources with the world. She and Okoye had perhaps the biggest laugh at the screening I attended, as well as some of the best dialogue and fight scenes. Okoye, furthermore, is a fearless General, yet has a romance with tribe leader W’Kabi. T’Challa’s little sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is one of the biggest scene-stealers and the film’s main comedic relief. She equips her brother with new gadgets she’s designed herself and calls him out on, well, just about everything. These characters are allowed to be multifaceted, with contradictions and changes of heart. T’Challa even learns dark truths about his father who he so revered, showing the layers we all have—no one is truly good, and no one is truly evil.
The main conflict in the film—will Wakanda’s secret become known, and the world receive access to vibranium—raises questions about diplomacy, loyalty, colonization, institutional racism and global intervention. Does Wakanda owe the world this resource, perhaps at their own expense? Who exactly counts as our tribe, and should receive our loyalty? With a nearly all-Black cast (with the exception of arms dealer Klaue and Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross, a CIA operative who joins with T’Challa et al. to help stop vibranium reaching the outside), the political parallels are powerful. This isn’t a standard tale of “good vs. evil,” but rather, what is the right thing to do—for ourselves, for our country, for humanity?
This is the era of Trump, and white supremacists have emerged from the shadows at an alarming rate. They’ve always been there, of course, but they grow more emboldened by the day, backed by an administration openly disdainful of anyone who isn’t white, male and rich. Black Panther’s big-budget existence in a post-Trump world is a fantastic “f**k you” to the status quo, and, as the record-breaking pre-sale Fandango reports proved, the whitewashed movie industry as a whole. Get Out wasn’t an anomaly. Girls Trip wasn’t an anomaly. Black Panther will not be an anomaly. The world wants to see movies starring people of color, playing characters with depth and kicking ass onscreen. Is it a popcorn action movie? Sure. But it’s more than that. It will stay with you longer than any other Marvel film, which may not be saying much, but proves a hopefully changing tide in the superhero universe.