Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is certainly part of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe. It shares some common themes with its predecessors, most notably the Thor franchise with its gorgeous landscapes and dramatic family dynamics. The story of the title character is picked up after his debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
In other ways, Panther does have the feel of a truly stand-alone experience. The other beings in the MCU are largely ignored. Some of the faults of the MCU features aren’t here. That includes the common and deserved quibbling of weak villains. Quite the opposite here and come to think of it – that’s another thing it shares with the Asgardian God and the baddies (especially Loki) he’s battled. Panther is, of course, also noteworthy for its nearly all African-American cast and setting on the fictional African country of Wakanda.
We’ve seen a whole bunch of superhero origin stories over the past few years. Black Panther is easily one of the most satisfying. It excites you about the character’s inclusion in his larger Avengers world while also priming you for further more self-contained adventures. We’re introduced to some memorable supporting players that often outshine the lead. And just as director Coogler reinvigorated the Rocky series with Creed, he puts a unique stamp on this franchise.
Chadwick Boseman is Black Panther/T’Challa. As you may recall, his father was assassinated in Civil War. That development causes T’Challa to become the king. His nation of Wakanda (besides being a triumph of production design) stands alone due to its abundance of vibranium, a precious alien metal. This substance allows Wakanda to have extremely advanced technology and much of it is overseen by T’Challa’s teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is essentially the Q to Boseman’s 007 and Wright is an absolute scene stealer in the part.
The presence of vibranium offers T’Challa the powers to be Black Panther. It also offers a conundrum: keep the vibranium local to his land as his forefathers have or use it to do good worldwide. The flip side is it could do lots of bad everywhere. That’s what Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would prefer. He lives over in the U.S. where he works alongside arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis, having a ball outside of his normal motion capture suit). They want the substance to wreak havoc and Killmonger travels overseas to do so. And the battle begins.
Black Panther is graced with a large cast of recognizable faces. Lupita Nyong’o is T’Challa’s ex who’s also an international spy for Wakanda. Martin Freeman is a CIA agent unexpectedly thrust into this exotic world. Angela Bassett is the Queen and Forest Whitaker plays one of T’Challa’s mentors. Daniel Kaluuya, who made a splash last year with Get Out, is Panther’s best friend who grows suspicious of his leadership abilities.
That’s a lot of cast to keep up with, but the film manages it rather effortlessly. Boseman is a sturdy anchor, but you may be chatting more about Wright and Jordan after the first credits and mid credits and final credits roll. Jordan’s Killmonger, when his full motivations are revealed, turns out to be one of the strongest comic book villains we’ve seen in some time. He’s not just a tyrant seeking earthly destruction (though he is). There’s a worthwhile back story he’s granted and it ratchets the action up a notch.
Coogler’s Panther is filled with impressive performances and most of the action sequences deliver. Most importantly, its storyline doesn’t feel cookie cutter at all. This is one of the most original MCU tales in many ways while still keeping to the age-old themes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decades ago. Fresh with familiarity mixed in proves to be an enticing recipe here.
***1/2 (out of four)