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Black Panther is a joyous game changer for Marvel

The movie soars on the spirit of its heroes and its villain.

Carlos Waters and Gina Barton/Vox
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Black Panther has been an Avenger for the past 50 years, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1966. What Kirby and Lee created, and what subsequent writers and artists have since refined, is one of the smartest and most powerful members of the superhero supergroup, demanding equal parts respect and fear.

But Black Panther also offers the kind of story that so many of his fellow superheroes can’t: a legend that empowers those with brown skin, cherishes Africa, and rewrites history to create a black monarchy that rules the most intelligent and powerful country in the world.

But Marvel, for whatever reason, hasn’t been in a particular rush to bring that fantasy to the screen. Its sprawling cinematic universe currently spans a full decade, 17 films, and 2,000 or so minutes of white men becoming demigods, iron-armored geniuses, incredible hulks, captains of America, spider-men, sorcerers supreme, and star lords. Women and people of color have represented an increasingly larger part of the equation in recent years, but still primarily as sidekicks, love interests, and supporting characters. Earth’s mightiest heroes are supposed to be the best of us, but onscreen they haven’t always represented all of us.

That’s frustrating for fans who were shaped by the pages of Marvel’s comic books. Comics characters like Black Panther drilled into young minds that anything is possible for anyone, that heroes, kings, and legends can come from anywhere.

But now director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is finally upon us, capturing the magic that Kirby, Lee, and all of the writers and artists who followed them have woven into the character’s half-century narrative, and imbuing it with an electrifying sense of purpose.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka during the attack on the United Nations in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the world.

Being king, T’Challa finds, is a lot more difficult than physically defeating challengers or zipping around with the Avengers. He’s torn between his fealty to the people of Wakanda, his pledge to uphold the country’s tradition and history, and his own personal moral code.

Through T’Challa’s turmoil, Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole are able to examine identity in a way that Marvel’s other movies don’t — or, rather, can’t, because none of Marvel’s other movies have been particularly interested in heroism that isn’t white or American, nor the sort of complicated questions that arise when a hero is neither of those things.

What responsibility does an African superhero owe a Western world that sold his ancestors into slavery? How does one reconcile the privilege of being the ruler of the most powerful country in the world with not retaliating against the people who’ve plundered and colonized the continent that country sits on? And what is Wakanda’s responsibility to the people it didn’t protect, but could have?

The answers Black Panther gives aren’t at all tidy, as we see T’Challa struggle to reconcile his duty to his people with his duty — if he has one — to the world. That struggle results in something incredibly rare: a mainstream superhero film that dares to dig into the turmoil and painful history of the real world, and unearths joy in the process.

Black Panther’s greatest asset is its villain and his mission

Black Panther often feels more like a Greek tragedy than a comic book. As with any superhero movie, there are a handful of smaller-scale fights leading to one large-scale melee that is completely bonkers (complete with armored, rambunctious African wildlife), but the best parts of the movie fall in the spaces between those fights.

As the film connects the dots between Black Panther’s appearance late in Captain America: Civil War and his subsequent ascension to the Wakandan throne, we learn more about the country’s history of uniting five warring tribes; how it mastered the use of vibranium, a precious metal in the Marvel universe; how it developed its powerful technology to hide its potential and resources from outsiders and colonizers; and now, following the death of T’Chaka, how its monarchy deals with the transition of power. T’Challa’s royal blood makes him the rightful heir to the throne, and with that great power comes a set of great challenges — or rather, one great challenge that dictates every other challenge he’s about to face.

At the heart of every decision, every meeting, every action, is T’Challa’s responsibility to his people. His fear is that Wakanda will, under his watch, be revealed for the rich paradise it truly is — the Western world enthusiastically believes it’s a poor third-world country — inviting greed and violence from the outside world.

But at the same time, he’s becoming more aware that the outside world is struggling with the ills of poverty, human trafficking, injustice, and inequality — problems that Wakanda has largely solved and could easily fix. Faced with this moral challenge, T’Challa must reconcile whether this great and powerful country can be truly great and powerful if it does not help others.

As T’Challa, Boseman has to play the role steady. His T’Challa is regal and thoughtful, but he doesn’t get many splashy moments outside of his Black Panther suit. That stuff primarily belongs to Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, the love of T’Challa’s life who also happens to be a Wakandan spy living in the outside world. She has firsthand experience with the problems that plague the world and doesn’t think anything is being solved by sitting in their utopia. She knows she can make a difference and makes clear to T’Challa that she believes life is best served helping others outside Wakanda’s protective borders.

In a sense, Nakia’s worldview isn’t that different from the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger, possessing a nickname fashioned from his days as a Black Ops mercenary, is working with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a criminal who’s been to Wakanda and stolen its most precious resource, as seen in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But Kilmonger has grander designs in mind. He’s frustrated that Wakanda hasn’t asserted itself more, particularly in America. The country has done well to make itself strong, and Killmonger is angry Wakanda didn’t use that strength to stop slave ships back then, and that it hasn’t done enough to help black lives now.

Jordan is incendiary as Killmonger, scathingly sharp in each scene. Unlike some Marvel villains, his motivation and eventual endgame make sense and feel grounded in the real world. He doesn’t want to blow up the planet, he wants violent restitution for the suffering and oppression inflicted on those who share his skin color; oppress the oppressors, and colonize and colonizers, Killmonger believes. Even if you don’t agree with his views or tactics, it’s easy to understand his resentment toward T’Challa, toward Wakanda, and toward the system he wants to break.

The moment when you realize you can almost relate to Jordan’s Killmonger is when the movie clicks, venturing somewhere more political and personal than the Marvel movies that came before it. Black Panther doesn’t outright admonish Killmonger’s anger and resentment, instead lingering on the idea that there’s no easy solution for the deep, widespread pain his mission has brought to the surface.

Black Panther invites viewers to dream big without ignoring the real world

That Coogler’s film ponders the ideas of race, heroism, and responsibility with such fluency and thoughtfulness doesn’t mean Black Panther is averse to having fun. A gasp-inducing action scene in South Korea is one of the best that Marvel has put on screen, segueing from a classic underground-club shootout into a gravity-defying tango featuring arm claws and retractable spears.

The fight allows Coogler and his retinue of CGI artists to imagine how vibranium energy can peel back a car’s frame as if it were a shrimp shell, or what bodies look like when they’re smacked with sonic booms.

In so many Marvel movies, science and technology have been used to retaliate, punish, or turn mild-mannered men into the Hulk. And while Coogler shows he can produce a rough-and-tumble show with it, he also shows how, in the right hands, big-budget special effects can be used to create a dazzling, unique onscreen world.

Coogler’s Afrofuturist vision of Black Panther’s Wakanda is buoyant and frequently eye-popping — and at the center of it is not T’Challa, but rather his genius baby sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Like James Bond’s Q with a dash of Iron Man and Batman’s Robin, she provides T’Challa the tech he needs to save the world — in between using her tech to heal bullet wounds, create hyper-efficient public transportation, and generally improve Wakandan life.

I can only imagine the thrill young Marvel fans will feel seeing Shuri invent gadgets that surpass Tony Stark’s and shoot energy from a pair of vibranium gauntlets — particularly those young fans who’ve been yearning to see themselves reflected onscreen. You can see the excitement and joy on Wright’s face, too, playing the kind of character that cinema has rarely made room for.

A similarly joyful sense of engagement and purpose comes through in Danai Gurira’s Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, the female warriors devoted to protecting the Black Panther. Okoye and the Dora Milaje aren’t unlike the Amazons of Themyscira, the joyous scene-stealers from last year’s blazing hit Wonder Woman, and their role in Black Panther is just as essential to the film’s tone.

Just a smirk from Gurira can electrify a scene, and Okoye’s scenes with her beloved spear make me want to start a GoFundMe for a Dora Milaje spinoff where Okoye or Shuri become the Black Panther.

Coogler and his talented cast and team tell a story that dazzles, one that dares its audience to dream of a world unrestrained by our own stifling reality, without ignoring how the pain of the real world informs those joyful dreams. Similarly, its invitation to audiences to imagine themselves as kings, queens, geniuses, and warriors, unapologetic in their beauty and joy, feels revolutionary and thrilling precisely because it’s still so rare for that invitation to be extended to everyone, from anywhere. Luckily for us, Wakanda is forever.

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