This year marks the 10th anniversary of the day the Marvel Cinematic Universe came into our lives. Iron Man introduced us to a franchise that has brought us joy, anger, and what seems to be an insurmountable rivalry between Marvel and DC.
In an era of five or six superhero films per year, Disney’s Marvel Studios has done something truly exceptional: keeping fresh. The company has managed to keep making billions at the box office by making their movies more than superhero stories, expanding on new genres. Ant-Man is a heist film, Thor: Ragnarok is a buddy comedy, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a teen flick.
Black Panther, the studio’s most recent release, is a royalty drama, in the same vein as Hamlet or its Disney equivalent, The Lion King. It’s a film about power struggle, about the ingrained family drama in royalty, and about the different types of leadership. It’s not the first time Marvel dwells in a royal family struggle: Thor and Loki have been handing us severe daddy issues for years.
Black Panther is not new genre-wise, but that doesn’t take away from it. It works like a charm, perhaps even better than its older cousin, the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor. A much more serious approach than usual in Marvel, it’s at a time the story of a country and a family.
Marvel’s Game of Thrones
Following a centuries-long tradition of soap dramas revolving around power, Black Panther delivers in a way we now expect from HBO’s Game of Thrones. We get the drama, the intrigue, the beautiful sets and costumes … while the magical element is provided by an impossibly handsome guy in Spandex acting like a big cat.
While you can see the screenwriter’s hand in Black Panther (like how T’Challa’s arc seems less refined than in Captain America: Civil War), its core makes for some fascinating drama. The film’s main concern, the question of the responsibilities of those wielding power, goes beyond the genre’s clichés and into ethics. Let’s say it’s as if Game of Thrones and The Good Place had a love child.
And that’s without getting into the movie’s aesthetics…
The most advanced country on Earth
We’ve seen some new worlds and made-up cities in the MCU before, but this is the first time we see Wakanda. A country unlike any other in Marvel lore, this nation is the best-kept secret in the world: the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, in the heart of Africa.
Wakanda developed quickly without anyone from the outside taking part of it, which makes it a unique nation in the continent. While Africa was being ransacked and colonized for centuries, Wakanda bloomed, with a different technology and look. And that is all present in the spectacular art design of Black Panther, probably the biggest highlight of the film.
Art-wise, it would have been easy to do a mashup of different African capitals to create Wakanda – but that would have turned its back on the unique history of this comic book utopia. In Ryan Coogler’s Wakanda, there’s no trace of the west.
While Asgard, Marvel’s previous attempt at worldbuilding, is distantly Norse, Wakanda is distinctly African. The architecture is colorful and traditional, the streets aren’t paved, the outfits are reminiscent of tribal ceremonial tunics, and every other Wakandan walks without shoes. These and many other details make the art not just beautiful, but a true homage to Africa – and an amazing exercise of how the continent would look had history been different.
This work doesn’t just translate to the Black Panther’s visuals, but also its sounds. Kendrick Lamar’s original soundtrack for the film goes well beyond the rapper’s comfort zone: it mixes African tribal with African American hip-hop, smoothly accompanying the story wherever it goes. When T’Challa carries the story, it’s all about traditional beats; when Killmonger leads, rap reigns. The music work is truly outstanding in its proximity to the story, a trait that’s too often ignored for snazzier tunes in the style of Quentin Tarantino.
And that’s without even delving into the players.
It’s refreshing (and, yes, even empowering) to see a film so rooted in Africa, with so many strong and amazing black characters.
Much like when he stole the show from under Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa continues to be one of the more captivating superheroes in the MCU. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is as amazing as you’d expect from the Oscar winner. The Walking Dead actress Dabai Gurira can take anyone’s breath away as fiercely loyal warrior Okoye. Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya is not only wonderful, but has arguably the most fascinating character arc in the film. Newcomer Letitia Wright is a bubbly alternative to the figure of James Bond’s Q, up until recently played by a string of old white guys. The older, supporting cast, is comprised of nothing short of legends, all incredible: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman and Sterling K. Brown
However, it’s Michael B. Jordan who’s in the spotlight. Erik Killmonger is a rare commodity in the MCU: an interesting villain. Showing a deep contrast with the privileged environment of Wakanda, this raw character is a reflection of the dark side of a fictionalized country – and a couple of real ones, too.
Is Black Panther the most unique Marvel movie? Probably not. It borrows a lot of elements from Thor, and its mid-credits scene bears a strong similarity to Iron Man’s ending.
Is it the best written out of the bunch? Screenplay-wise, it has a few areas for improvement, like underdeveloped stories – for example, Okoye and W’Kabi’s relationship became crucial at some point, and it had only been skimmed through before.
That said, Black Panther might just be the braves and most stunning MCU film to date. Its looks and sounds are believable and vivid, its characters are strong and endearing, its plight and ethics are relevant. And it takes a lot of guts to delve into Marvel’s most isolated place right before the franchise’s most massive endeavor, Avengers: Infinity War.