The Marvel Cinematic Universe expands again… and everyone benefits.
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his African home country of Wakanda to be officially crowned king after the death of his father, T’Chaka (John Kani). All countries on Earth believe Wakanda to be a poor third-world country, but it secretly hides the most advanced technological society on the planet — a secret it guards jealously to prevent its technology and weaponry from falling into the wrong hands. Arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) once stole a small cache of Vibranium from the Wakandans and has been their number-one enemy ever since, but when a chance to capture the villain fulfilling a bargain with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) goes south, the opportunity to challenge the monarchy of Wakanda also presents itself… as well as calling into question a policy of leaving the rest of the world to destroy itself.
With Hollywood under fire recently for “white washing” casts of Asian films with non-Asian actors, it’s telling that a line like “two billion other people who look like us” is included in the script for Black Panther, a predominately black cast not portrayed as poor or destitute but advanced, enlightened, and forward-thinking. It calls into question everything you think you know: what if the real superpower in the world isn’t who you think it is, and they’re smart enough to let others go right on believing they hold all the cards? Call it Atlantis or El Dorado, but as the world shrinks and outside technology catches up, does it make sense to stay hidden when we all could work together and everyone’s benefit? Finally, can Marvel’s moviemaking machine expand its action superhero franchise while simultaneously inspiring a message of hope for audiences all over the world?
Black Panther dares to explore these ideas while delivering one of the best films of the MCU franchise. The story is complex enough to keep you guessing — it doesn’t go the way you think — and still manages to make 135 minutes go by in the blink of an eye. With an incredible production design to compliment its story, Marvel again leans on exemplorary casting to create relatable characters to cheer for while continuing to beef up its stable of villains, one of the biggest shortfalls of many Marvel movies as well as one generally overlooked due to everything else done right. On the heels of last year’s Get Out touching on the horror of exploiting other people and with so much encouraged divisiveness in the real world, Black Panther feels like the right movie we need right now.
Some sequences to take place in other locations, but the nation of Wakanda is on display here, a fusion of modern design and African influence, from skyscrapers to street art. Even the most simple things aren’t as simple as they appear, fully integrated and simple in appearance until needed. It would be easy to dismiss the Wakandans as deceptive by nature, but in an untrusting world where resources are plundered from those unable to grasp their worth, its understandable why they would allow outsiders to dismiss them as having nothing of value: the ultimate protection. Wakanda’s origin story tells that the goddess Bast provided their vision and path; as such, Wakandan women are highly respected and none more than the Dora Milaje, the king’s personal guard of elite female fighters. “The Walking Dead’s” Danai Gurira portrays the scene-stealing General Okoye, Letitia Wright portrays tech-master Shuri, Lupita Nyong’o plays T’Chaka’s confidant Nakia, and Angela Bassett finally makes an appearance in the MCU as T’Chaka’s mother Ramonda. To say that girl power oozes from the film is an understatement: these ladies kick ass. Michael B. Jordan’s villainous Killmonger is as complex as any of the heroes and all the better for it.
As Marvel now sets it sights upon The Avengers: Infinity War to do the Avengers-level business at the box office, the stage is set for a classic universe-spanning special event where everyone gets a moment in the spotlight to defeat big-bad Thanos. Between Stark tech and Wakanda know-how, maybe Earth has a chance, but one thing has become abundantly clear: we can’t be consumed by our petty differences when more binds us than separates us. Whatever happens next, these are the kinds of heroes we all aspire to.
Four skull recommendation out of four.