Where have you been, Wakanda?
Light Black Panther spoilers below!
Black Panther's core concept--that there's a secretive African country full of otherworldly technology, affluent people, and godlike warriors--is incredibly fun and ripe for storytelling. But it also begs the potentially damning question: Where has Wakanda been while black people suffered all over the world throughout human history? The fact that Black Panther doesn't just address that, but tackles it head on as the movie's central conflict, is a large part of what makes it a fantastic film.
Wakanda was long ago settled by five warring tribes who united under one king, empowered by the mountain of "vibranium"--the strongest metal in existence--implanted in the earth by a wayward asteroid. As its civilization became ever more advanced, Wakanda grew more and more secretive, under the leadership of a succession of kings who took on the mantle of the Black Panther.
That's the opening story dump necessary to get audiences on board. But the film's events actually begin in 1992 Oakland, where the Black Panther/King of the day, T'Chaka (the same one who died in 2016's Captain America: Civil War), travels to confront a treasonous Wakandan who grew disillusioned with his homeland's selfish isolationism after witnessing black people's suffering throughout the tumultuous period.
When the story picks up in the present day, it's that same issue that the new Black Panther, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), must face. His love interest, Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia, is a philanthropist who believes Wakanda should share its wealth and technology to help the suffering. His underlings, including Daniel Kaluuya's W'Kabi, believe Wakanda should wage war on the outside world. T'Challa would be more comfortable simply preserving Wakanda as it is, but throughout Black Panther he's confronted over and over with the same question: How can Wakanda continue to stand by while black people suffer all over the world?
That's where Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger comes in. As dangerous as he is charismatic, Killmonger seeks to seize control of Wakanda so he can use the nation's hyper-advanced weapons to undo millennia of injustice, remaking the world with black people on top. Through fierce monologues full of biting condemnations, Killmonger wields years of suffering--his people's and his own--to cut right to the core of everything wrong with Wakanda, and the world. Once his motivations are revealed, it's hard not to sympathize, and that combined with an absolutely stunning performance from Jordan makes Killmonger easily the best and most complex Marvel Cinematic Universe villain ever.
It's not a case of the villain becoming the good guy, though. Killmonger is undeniably evil--in fact, Black Panther's most unfortunate misstep is making him too villainous in the first half, which in turn makes it difficult to fully empathize with him later on. And besides, T'Challa's position is just as understandable: If Wakanda were to reveal itself to the outside world, they would almost certainly lose their way of life forever.
That may be selfish, but it works, in large part because Wakanda is so gorgeously realized in this movie. Think of it like an earth-bound Asgard, except unlike Thor's homeland, Wakanda seems like a place that might actually exist in the real world (besides all the hover trains and holograms, of course). T'Challa and Nakia stroll through the markets, while magnetic bullet trains criss-cross vibranium-laced caverns underground. Priests and priestesses tend the sacred garden of the Heart-Shaped Herb, the vibranium-infused flower that gives the Black Panther his powers.
The whole city pulses and thrives, colors and structures simultaneously informed by African heritage and an alienness granted by vibranium technology. The original songs by Kendrick Lamar fit perfectly, lending each scene both modernity and an added sense of history. And the characters who live there easily cement themselves in this movie as some of the most fully fleshed out in the whole MCU.
Danai Gurira's Okoye leads the Dora Milaje, a small army of ferocious female warriors, in some incredible fight scenes. Angela Bassett's Queen Mother Ramonda infuses a dignified monarch with a core of intense emotion. And Letitia Wright's Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister and chief inventor--the Q to his 007--threatens to steal the movie in her own right. Whether she's gawking hilariously at T'Challa's latest fashion faux pas or joining battle with the aid of some awesome new vibranium-powered gadget, Shuri will be many viewers' favorite character by the end.
Kaluuya (from Get Out!), Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Winston Duke, and Martin Freeman round out the excellent cast, each getting their moments in the movie to make a mark. Freeman is the only one who stands out as kind of pointless, although he gets plenty of standout moments--arguably too many, as viewers and other characters alike will occasionally wonder why he's there at all (besides that his Agent Ross is a fan favorite character from the comics). Yes, his incredulity at Wakanda's advanced technology makes him a sometimes welcome surrogate for the audience, but as the most benevolent CIA agent ever portrayed he ultimately muddies the message somewhat.
The main reason the world thinks Wakanda is a third world wasteland is that's what Wakanda wants them to think. But it's also because that's easy for the world to believe. Black Panther is a movie that succeeds in challenging that type of preconceived idea, from the gut-punches of Killmonger's condemnations to the simple reality of seeing an affluent African nation never touched by--to borrow the movie's own terminology--any of history's many "colonizers." The fact that Wakanda isn't real only emphasizes the point.
And on top of all that, Black Panther is a top tier Marvel movie with all the humor, style, action, passion, and fun that the MCU has come to embody. Black Panther is a cultural event that's going to be hard for Marvel to top, no matter how many worlds Thanos conquers later this year in Infinity War.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Asks and answers important questions||Killmonger misstep makes him slightly too evil|
|Wakanda feels like a real, living place||Martin Freeman's character is pointless|
|Incredible music and visual design|
|Filled with complex and sympathetic characters|
|Killmonger is the best MCU villain yet|