Not all comic book films are created equally. There's the young adult adventure of the current run of Spider-Man. Then we have the irreverent space odyssey of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. And let's not forget the comedic technicolor romp Thor: Ragnarok. Each of them deals with different topics, but you can see a resemblance that suggests they belong to the same family. Black Panther is so different in both approach and execution, that even though we know it's supposed to exist in the same universe as the rest of the Marvel films, it feels like it takes place in a completely different dimension.
Creating a good villain is difficult, especially when it comes to the MCU films where they just treat them like disposable, hollow characters that only exist to cause chaos. Even the most recent villains, like Hela (Thor: Ragnarok) and Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), really only serve the purpose by being entropic forces of violence bent on galactic domination for completely selfish reasons. Morality is more than just black and white in real life, but in the world of comics, writers prefer their characters to be monochromatic because it keeps things simple. The measure of a compelling villain isn’t in how monstrous their actions and agenda appear but in the familiar face of their intentions. In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is the clear-cut antagonist, but a closer look will reveal that he is also accidentally heroic in his villainy.
All the past MCU films have been entertaining in an obviously fictional sort of way. Most of the time they involve fictional places with no real-world connections. Wakanda is a fictional place, but that's only meant to set the stage for the very relevant social commentary Black Panther provides. At the beginning of the film, we notice many similarities between the Wakandan leadership's views towards the world and Donald Trump's ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Wakanda is a city mostly shrouded from the outside world, much like superhero and their alter ego. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the other tribe leaders are afraid to help the rest of the world because they don't want to let the wrong kind of person into their city that could potentially change their way of life. That's where Killmonger comes in.
Black Panther does what no other Marvel film has done to date, and that is create a film that maintains its comic book roots while being socially relevant. This film deals with issues of race and privilege while providing its own commentary on race relations around the world, (but with a spotlight on the US). Killmonger is one of the best villains that the MCU has created to date because his ultimate goal is a noble one. He wants to equalize the field for the oppressed, especially for Black people in America. We spend most of the film sympathizing with his cause but conflicted with his violent approach. That turns Black Panther into a new breed of comic book film that offers much more than just form-fitting suits and superhero landings.
It's undeniable that representation matters. In the past decade alone, we've been bombarded with comic book based films that satiate our needs, each with diminishing returns. They quench our thirst, but the more of them we get, the more they feel like we're drinking salt water. The more we drink, the thirstier we get. Black Panther provides the nourishing refreshment we didn't know we needed.
Although it is based on a fictional country, this film is steeped in African heritage. Everything from the vibrant costume design to the powerful make-up and even the sound design that blends traditional African music with hip-hop inflections creates an empowering experience for any person of color that views the film.
Black Panther benefits from the experience of writer-director Ryan Coogler, who has proven that he understands the complexity of race relations and the black experience with films like Fruitvale Station and Creed. Coogler's experience with fight sequences makes the fight choreography and camerawork some of the most fluid of any action film, let alone a comic book based film. There's a scene that takes place in a backroom casino in South Korea that combines flowing camerawork and near-seamless editing. It’s a kinetic and engaging sequence, making us feel like we're there in person, visually following the events. And that's just one of the many action sequences that help create the captivating experience that is Black Panther.
The talent continues with the star-studded ensemble cast full of incredible actors and actresses. Unlike past Marvel films where it's usually the Tony Stark or Thor show, Black Panther is the sum of all of its parts. Every performance is complementary to the last, whether it's the sibling-like dynamic between Boseman and Jordan’s characters, the chummy, yet respectful relationship between T'Challa and Okoye (Danai Gurira), or the subtle yet palpable romantic tension between T'Challa and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o). Great performances are as plentiful as the vibranium in Wakanda, with talents like Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright, Sterling K. Brown and John Kani. Even "colonizers" like Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis deliver great performances in their supportive roles.
Black Panther is the game-changer we've been waiting for. Within this film is the perfect blend of a fictional world that adheres to our political and social reality. Although the film does nothing for LGBTQ community (but there might be hope in the future for Okoye), it does show Marvel moving toward a more diverse universe that at least mentions real-world issues. We're probably far from seeing a gay Mexican superhero that I personally can identify with, but this film is a beacon of hope in a time where that is a scarce commodity.