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Black Panther: 5 things to know about Marvel’s next surefire hit

If you think you’re going to like this movie, you’re going to LOVE this movie.

Black Panther
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) tracks down some villains with the help of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o, left) and Okoye (Danai Gurira).
Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you think you’re going to like Black Panther, for basically any reason, you’re going to love Black Panther.

I feel quite confident in saying this. Whether you’re a Marvel fan or just excited for a movie centered on the first major black superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther overdelivers.

Even I, someone who’s increasingly surly about some of Marvel’s creative choices, had a great deal of fun watching the film, despite some quibbles here and there — and the audience I saw it with was into it.

The movie is both a tribute to the skill of Fruitvale Station and Creed director Ryan Coogler, who almost effortlessly scales up to a much bigger budgetary level with Black Panther, and to an ensemble cast full of actors who’d rarely get asked to play parts like these in a blockbuster like this. (Weirdly, the weak link might be Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, the Black Panther himself, but less because of his performance than because everybody else gets to have a lot more fun.)

So with that big-picture thought in mind, here are five things to know about Black Panther. These are just some quick initial impressions — Alex Abad-Santos will have Vox’s official review of the film closer to its February 16 release.

1) Ryan Coogler knows how to make a movie

Black Panther
T’Challa has to fight to keep his place on the throne of Wakanda.
Marvel Studios

Black Panther marks the first time the director has worked with this big of a budget, within the confines of Hollywood franchise filmmaking. Plenty of promising young directors have crumbled under that weight, and there are moments in Black Panther where you can spot Coogler’s growing pains. (This is particularly true in the action sequences, which can occasionally be hard to parse, especially once more than a handful of characters pop up onscreen.)

But much of Coogler’s signature style is present in the film, from his love of capturing people doing seemingly impossible things in long, sweeping camera arcs to his interest in the huge variety of black experience in the US. Yes, the movie’s central setting of Wakanda is a fictional African kingdom, but it metaphorically stands in for an exploration of what happens when members of a disadvantaged group gain money, power, and influence. Do they owe anything to anyone? Or should they shut themselves off from potential harm (as Wakanda has so far)?

Marvel’s best reason to hire Coogler for Black Panther turns out to be his skill with creating onscreen communities. Wakanda has to be built from the ground up in an incredibly short amount of time, and when you keep that in mind, it’s amazing how skillfully Coogler avoids getting mired in too much exposition and crafts his world largely through visual elements like the blocking of his actors, beautiful sets, and exquisite costumes. In fact ...

2) This is one good-looking movie

From Ruth Carter’s color-coded costumes (which do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing where characters are from within the film’s world) to Rachel Morrison’s sun-dappled cinematography to Hannah Beachler’s multi-tiered sets, every frame of Black Panther carries so much striking visual information that fans will surely go back to see what they missed.

Particularly when it comes to the film’s design elements, Black Panther succeeds in creating a Wakanda that blends together a wide variety of African design elements to form a believable alternate kingdom that feels grounded in what we know of our own history, while also being the sort of place where technology is more advanced than it is in our world.

The only place I might object comes in the film’s visual effects, which are generally good, except when the Black Panther starts bouncing around the frame and feels a little like he’s made of Silly Putty. But fans of superhero movies will be used to this particular problem.

3) Michael B. Jordan is the best Marvel villain ever — and not even just by default

Black Panther
Michael B. Jordan plays the film’s villain, Killmonger.
Marvel Studios

Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger doesn’t just clear the bar for what makes an effective villain — somebody who really does believe he’s the hero of his own movie. He sails over it with ease. There are going to be more than a few people who see Black Panther and say, “You know, his methods weren’t great, but Killmonger had some great points.” Marvel’s weak villain problem has felled many a great actor (even Cate Blanchett!), but it doesn’t rear its head here.

I don’t want to spoil the film’s story too much, but suffice it to say that Killmonger’s interest in the Black Panther and Wakanda stems from the fact that he thinks Wakanda hasn’t done enough to help disadvantaged black communities around the world, who had their lives shattered centuries ago by slavery and still have to live with the burden of its legacy.

Jordan rips into the role with a ferocity that his previous roles, especially as the lead in Coogler’s film Creed, wouldn’t have suggested. There’s an inherent nobility to the way the actor carries himself onscreen, and he uses it to nicely discombobulate viewers here. He’s having the time of his life playing the villain, and his performance left me even more convinced he’s one of the major new movie stars of our time.

4) The entire cast is aces

The cast of Black Panther is so stacked that two-time Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown plays a part that’s buried so deep in the roster that he’s basically the seventh or eighth lead. And even still, Coogler makes sure that an actor of Brown’s caliber gets a couple of scenes in which to shine.

Meanwhile, there’s Lupita Nyong’o! And Danai Gurira! And Daniel Kaluuya! And Angela freakin’ Bassett! They’re all here. And then perhaps my favorite character, T’Challa’s sister and tech expert Shuri (think Q in the James Bond movies), is played by the little-known British actor Letitia Wright, who’s probably best known for a Black Mirror episode in the States. (Really, that show has proved a huge casting boon for Hollywood.) Even Martin Freeman, who’s been hit or miss in the Marvel movies, is a ton of fun in a part that is sneakily written as “the token white guy who helps out the good guys.”

And that’s what’s so great about how Coogler uses his actors. Even if they’re playing a smaller role, he gives their character an arc and a point of view. Black Panther is a political movie, in the sense that much of it centers on questions of political succession in Wakanda, and that means everybody in the cast has to have a perspective on the question of how Wakanda should deal with both its succession problem and its relations to the outside world. That the actors all have story arcs to play makes their work all the more substantial.

5) Black Panther’s second act is incredibly thoughtful about the costs of endless anger and vengeance

Black Panther
Listen, that’s one great suit.
Marvel Studios

Weirdly, the movie I kept thinking of while watching Black Panther (especially during its terrific second act) was Martin McDonagh’s flawed but undoubtedly interesting Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Like that movie, Black Panther is interested in questions of what happens when we let our anger and our desire for vengeance to overrule our empathy for other human beings. And like that movie, Black Panther asks how we retain our moral compass in the face of people who invite us to give in to our baser instincts.

The question isn’t whether forgiveness is possible; it’s whether forgiveness is desirable, or just a tool used by the privileged to shame those with no power, as a way of maintaining existing power structures.

But where Three Billboards found itself tripped up by wild tonal variance and McDonagh’s failure to grasp that some of the hot-button issues he’d invoked would fatally imbalance the movie for many viewers, Black Panther benefits from having a stronger handle on race relations (which, uh, wouldn’t be hard) and from being set in an obviously fantastical kingdom that allows for everything to play out with the much more obvious sheen of metaphor.

The disappointment, then, is that the movie’s final act moves a little too quickly to get everybody into place for the climactic battle, rushing past a bunch of really interesting ideas about power and who wields it most effectively because it’s eager to get to the rampaging rhinos. (Yes, this movie has armored rhinos.)

In the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor complaint, and I doubt many viewers will share it with me, especially those who are simply thrilled to see this storied character finally have his big-screen showcase. But Black Panther breaks the Marvel mold for so long that in some ways, it’s disappointing when it reveals itself as just another superhero movie — albeit one that gives the world a hero that so many fans have long desired and deserved.

Black Panther opens Friday, February 16, across the country. Preview screenings will be held on Thursday, February 15.

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