Black Panther starts as a fairly formulaic Marvel movie. That’s not to say its unique setting, African-inspired costumes, and predominantly black cast don’t wildly differ from its comic book brethren. It’s just that, beyond those elements, it follows standard operating procedure for hero christening, love-interest establishing, and the setting of stakes.
Something happens, however, when Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger arrives. It takes about an hour for his presence to be truly felt; up until then, you can’t help but wonder why the Jordan levels are so low. Then you realize that writer-director Ryan Coogler is slowly building a cinematic society before our eyes, accentuating its regalness and civility to make the fall that much more powerful.
It’s not the first comic book movie to aim for that trope (oh hey, Thor) but it’s the first one that deserves being described with such grandiosity.
A brief synopsis: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new king of Wakanda, an African nation with secret magic metals that’ve advanced them beyond the rest of the world. He’s also Black Panther, more commonly known as “the cat guy from Captain America: Civil War.” To keep their metals out of the wrong hands, and also avoid involving themselves in everyone else’s bullshit, Wakanda has long pretended to be a third-world nation. As T’Challa struggles with being a ruler, and also with a bit of Marvel-mandated globetrotting, he’s introduced to the villainous Killmonger and confronted with the reality of what his noble country is capable of.
It’s hard to review a movie like Black Panther without constantly referencing all the elements in play. On one hand, it has the potential to be the most influential blockbuster in modern history. It’s directed by a black man, written by two black men, and stars a copious amount of famous—and fantastic—black actors and actresses. Yet it’s also part of the Marvel machine. They print money, in part because they follow a pretty strict blueprint. Though outliers like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok keep things somewhat fresh, almost every entry serves primarily to set up the next one. They’re means to a never-ending end.
So when Killmonger enters Wakanda, and Coogler can dispense with negotiations between Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue and Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross and focus on the nation’s internal strife, what had been fun becomes a force. All of a sudden, our king doesn’t feel like a pleasantly aimless protagonist; Lupita Nyong'o’s Nakia has motivations beyond “I am attracted to T’Challa but also to my duty.” For at least a little while, Black Panther becomes much more than just another solid Marvel movie. Few, if any, of the others have felt this vibrant and alive.
Jordan, who has already starred in two TV gems (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) and two other Coogler classics (Fruitvale Station, Creed), adds perhaps the biggest possible notch to his already-ample belt. Killmonger is bigger than T’Challa; he’s stronger, he’s meaner, and—most importantly from a storytelling perspective—he’s American. He speaks like a black dude from Oakland, in stark contrast to T’Challa’s high-born enunciation. He represents everything Wakanda feared, and also everything that hiding has made them weak against. Jordan, as always, reminds us with every look, every threat, every flex of his giant muscles, that he’s the best young actor working today.
Thanks to the almost-all-black cast, darker skin becomes the movie’s reality as opposed to something it looks into the camera and addresses. The only “speech” that explicitly calls out race is Killmonger’s last short soliloquy. Coogler understands something that so many industry executives have forgotten, an approach that already worked so well in Creed: We don’t need, or even want, our fictional worlds to be familiar. Audiences fall in love with places and stories; they embrace characters because they’re compelling and deep. Add a dash of originality to a tried-and-true classic—and execute it all to perfection—and you’re golden.
That said, I can’t speak for people of color who’ve waited years for more silver-screen heroes to relate to. Everyone deserves a movie that speaks to them, stars actors of their race or skin tone, or hits home in a powerful way; Marvel and Disney are currently finding out that they’ll also pay for the privilege. But that all wouldn’t matter if Black Panther were ho-hum, if Coogler wasn’t brilliant, if Jordan and Nyong'o and Boseman (and Forest Whitaker, and Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke) weren’t such commanding performers. Diversity is about rich, varied experiences, and that’s what Black Panther ends up being: another wonderful, and timely, variation on the Marvel formula.