There’s a moment early on in Black Panther that took my breath away. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), not yet a king, is riding in his hovercraft shuttle with spy and former paramour Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the Dora Milaje, the Panther’s personal honor guard. We follow the craft as it makes its way through the holographic barrier that conceals Wakanda from the outside world, and you can see the thrusters that propel it—and in the energy bloom, you can make out African symbols, shifting, pulsing, morphing.
Someone had to design that (namely, production designer Hannah Beachler). Someone had to approve it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had to be spent to render something that, in any other movie, would just be “space blue.”
It’s as if everyone enlisted to bring the project to life understood the magnitude of what Black Panther, the first comic-based studio movie with a black hero at the center since 1998’s Blade, would represent: The chance to fill every corner of their fictional Wakanda with the same level of craft and detail usually reserved for British-star-studded period pieces; an opportunity to tell a story about black lives, which matter and are not defined by their pain but, instead, by their glory; an answer to a culture’s question, “When will it be our time in the sun?”
As such, it can be hard to separate what Black Panther means from what it is. What it means is everything, especially to any kid who has never put the words “African” and “king” together in the same sentence. Or to any young woman who was ever discouraged from chasing a life in science and technology. To anyone who was ever told “you fight like a girl.”
As for what it is? Black Panther is like the most delicious cake you’ve ever tasted in your entire life, but which isn’t quite cooked all the way through.
Black Panther picks up where Captain America: Civil War left off: With T’Challa still grieving the death of his father, even on the eve of his ascendance to the throne. In short order, we see the web of relationships that bind T’Challa to Wakanda. His love for his widowed mother, Queen Ramonda (the resplendent Angela Bassett), who invests in her son all the dreams of a happy future curtailed. His respect for Zuri (Forest Whitaker), his father’s boon companion and Wakanda’s spiritual leader. His playful bond with his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a tech wizard whose inventions kick Tony Stark’s and James Bond’s to a distant curb. His trust in Okoye, who has the rare pleasure of both serving the throne of Wakanda and liking the man who sits upon it. And his affection for Nakia, one of Wakanda’s spies-at-large who thinks it might be time for her nation to share its tremendous gifts with a world that needs them.
Into that web wanders Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a South African arms dealer and mercenary who has been caught and branded for stealing the miraculous metal Vibranium from Wakanda, the only place in the world it can be mined.
And then there’s the sinewy Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American veteran who is crazy about Wakanda, Wakandans, and the new King T’Challa. The minute he strides on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him—partially because he’s played by the unfairly charismatic Jordan, partially because his attire is all Dwyane Wade-meets-Big Boi funky. As his story develops and deepens, we understand why he’s a villain, what broke him as a child, and how he never healed right. We understand who he his and exactly what he wants.
In fact, every character’s wants and needs are clearly defined, with one exception: T’Challa’s. When the film opens, he wants to be king. Ten minutes and one ceremonial duel with rival tribe-leader M’Baku (Winston Duke) later, he’s king. After that, he wants to maintain the status quo: Preserve the Wakandan way of life. But the status quo, by definition, is static, and stasis isn’t drama. His romance with Nakia never exceeds nascence; by the time the film ends, you might’ve forgotten they had ever been “a thing.” For too much of Black Panther, the Black Panther has everything he wants.
On top of this, he is also almost entirely devoid of flaws. He’s a deadly martial artist, a stalwart friend, well-educated, even-tempered, quick to smile, and, despite all that, he’s humble. Flaws are the grooves, the nocks that add depth. Perfection in fiction, unlike in life, can be boring. I mean, even Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.
The movie leaps to its feet when T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye find themselves in Busan, South Korea, hot on the heels of the criminal Klaue. For a hot 15 minutes, Black Panther becomes the best Bond movie you’ll ever see, partially because, here, the Panther wants something—to kill or capture Klaue. But this can also be thanked to the bone-crushing, wall-smashing action executed to perfection by director Ryan Coogler, who takes to it like an artist in love with the ways human bodies can cause destruction. Quickly, the sequence morphs into a car chase that feels as inspired by anime as it does by John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.
Then, Black Panther settles back into its groove, in which everything on the periphery is awesome (especially the Dora Milaje…my gods, the Dora Milaje), but the center does not hold. Though Boseman pivots from dignity to delight on a dime, the screenplay (by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) has trouble finding ways to emotionally engage with the character, all the way through to an action climax whose humanity is outweighed by its CGI.
The film does deal head-on with issues of race, subjugation, and oppression in ways both heartbreaking and hilarious. The final coda is as direct an address to the xenophobia at home in our current administration as that which you’ll find in any film this year, let alone any giant Marvel movie. As a nerd and as a black man, I’ve been waiting for this movie for my entire life, whether I knew it or not. The fact that Black Panther gets so much right, but one crucial thing wrong, is both thrilling and maddening.
What it is. And what it means.
There are a few scenes set in Oakland, California—Coogler’s hometown. At one point, a young black boy in a rundown apartment dismisses the idea of Wakanda itself: What good is “a kid in Oakland, running around believing in fairy tales”? Coogler is that kid and this is his fairy tale—a fairy tale for other kids who rarely get them, and never like this.
What it means.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos