Growing up black and loving comic books has been a bitch. It's not like there haven't been a decent amount of characters that look like me to root for: I grew up with everything from Static and Icon of the Milestone Comics era to Storm, Bishop, and other key Marvel characters of color. Superpowered black folks were around, but for the most part, they never achieved the same heights of popularity as a Superman or Captain America. Even if someone like Black Panther was one of the smartest and richest heroes in the Marvel Comics universe, deep down you knew damn well he wouldn't get the same shine as his peers. It's another case of art imitating life, as people of color rarely get the same props as white dudes in most avenues. That's why I'm glad that, after all of this time, Marvel Studios has finally released a film as magnificent as Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the 18th release in their massive cinematic universe.
Black Panther picks up the pieces relatively soon after we last saw T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. His father, T'Chaka, is dead, meaning that T'Challa not only has to assume the role of King of Wakanda (which is secretly the most technologically-advanced nation on the planet, thanks to the vast amount of vibranium on their land), but he also has to take on the mystical mantle of the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda. The main crux of the film centers around T'Challa finding a way to balance both the thrown he's settling into and to keep Wakanda's secrets from the outside world.
The newly crowned King is not alone in his journey. He's joined by his sister, Shuri (played by Letitia Wright, who high-key steals every scene she's in with her millennial wit), who uses her enhanced intelligence build better tech for her big brother, including an upgraded suit that stores kinetic energy. We're also introduced to Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a headstrong Wakandan spy who might know T'Challa better than he knows himself, as well as Okoye (Danai Gurira, of The Walking Dead fame), who is the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female, all-badass armed guards of Wakanda. Black Panther actually does a lot of good in showing strong-willed women who can kick all kinds of ass. Watching Okoye's command over the Dora, or Nakia doing battle? It's awe-inspiring, especially for little black girls who can't find powerful role models on the screen or in the pages of male-dominated comic books. And seeing Shuri, who can seamlessly express how she's down with the culture while still being the smartest person in the room, is a great touch; we need more of her on-screen.
As awesome as it is to see the women take charge in this film (including Angela Bassett, who plays the mother of T'Challa and Shuri), it's even more striking to see the stunning world Ryan Coogler and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole have created. With only a handful of personal references to the beauty of Africa that I can recall (one of them being animated and the other being another fictional nation), one can't help but marvel (pun intended) at the jaw-dropping visuals of the vibrant landscape we are introduced to in Black Panther. Coogler, who made it a point to visit Africa before embarking on this project, found a way to show us both the bustling cities and vast countryland, as well as the futuristic heart of Wakanda. For my son and kids his age (and the generations that follow), it's important to be given images of Africa being the beautiful, bountiful land that it is.
Much of the credit of this film being great falls on the broad shoulders of Chadwick Boseman; he's a literal shapeshifter, who's previously transformed himself on-screen to be everyone from James Brown to Jackie Robinson, and he approaches T'Challa with the same conviction. From his accent to how regally he carries himself; you get the feeling that this man truly is royalty moonlighting as a superhero. Some of the film's best moments are when Boseman is living up to the James Bond vibe that Marvel was looking for. During one extended sequence that takes place in a seedy South Korean casino, T'Challa gets to banter with Okoye and Nakia before taking on Ulysses Klaue, a diabolical arms dealer who's been pilfering vibranium and selling it to the highest bidder to make extravagantly violent weapons. From there, T'Challa has to slide into his Black Panther gear and engage in a car chase through the streets. Sure, it's a superhero film, so this is what he should be doing, but Captain America is too much of a herb to go under the radar, and while Tony Stark literally is a billionaire playboy, he's too egocentric to go on covert missions without making it about him and his grand entrance. T'Challa's cool, and can play the role, but also knows how to turn up the heat and defy CIA agents like Martin Freeman's Everett Ross (who we first met in Civil War) for the betterment of his people.
Keep in mind, we haven't even gotten to movie's primary antagonist Michael B. Jordan yet. One of Marvel's biggest hurdles over the past decade has been cultivating villains audiences can believe in, but Jordan soars as Killmonger, a brutal bad guy with Wakandan roots and his eye on the throne. What makes him unique is not that he's one of the freshest actors playing his heart out in this massive role; it's that his motivations are a bit more rooted than the standard "world domination." Sure, that's ultimately what Killmonger's looking for, but there's an eerie parallel to world politics and social issues of today that play into his reasoning for assuming the role of King of Wakanda, especially in regards to what he'd do with the power of vibranium. Killmonger steals more scenes than Shuri does, but it's the purpose behind those wonderfully-delivered lines that makes him a character that feels more lived in than most Marvel villains.
Does all of this make Black Panther a perfect film? No. There are a few moments that don't hit like they should have. While Coogler did a great job with the action sequences in the confines of a squared circle in Creed, you do get "first action film" vibes from Black Panther at times here. That's not to say he doesn't rise to the task of bringing the best Marvel film he can, but there are stretches in the beginning of the film that tend to drag a bit. It's as if the film can't find its footing until the filmmaker commits to fully turning T'Challa into Marvel's Bond.
Ultimately, even those missteps don't stop Black Panther from being a certified top 5 Marvel film. Some might dare say top 3, which is debatable depending on what you have in your top 5, but either way, this is without a doubt one of the best Marvel Studios releases, and low-key feels like the beginning of something different for the company. With the Black Panther being the first black supherhero to get a solo MCU film, there's hope that the first female-driven Marvel film (2019's Captain Marvel) can get just as massive of a welcome. It shouldn't have taken a decade for either of those firsts to be, but with the time and care that Marvel allowed Coogler and company to craft this film, it was well worth the wait especially for a big kid like myself who never thought a superhero who looked like me would ever get his shine. Wakanda Forever.