Created in 1966 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Black Panther was the first black superhero published by Marvel Comics and the first notable black comic character published in the United States. Black Panther’s unique characterization as the genius king of a hidden, technologically-advanced African nation made him an obvious target for an adaptation in an era of the superhero-dominated box office. Comic book fans had been clamoring for a Black Panther movie for years, and writer-director Ryan Coogler, alongside the powers that be at Disney, did not disappoint.
First, some nerdy backstory: early in its history, the fictional nation of Wakanda discovered two its most valuable resources—vibranium, a precious, nearly-indestructible metal, and heart-shaped herbs, an edible plant that provides superhuman powers. Throughout history, kings of Wakanda consume the herb and assume the mantle of Black Panther upon taking the throne. The events of Black Panther take place after the reigning Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is introduced in Captain America: Civil War, where T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, is killed in a terrorist bombing. Black Panther’s story opens on T’Challa preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps as king. As T’Challa ascends to the kingship, a long lost cousin, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda to challenge for the throne and alter Wakanda’s place in the world.
As the eighteenth(!) movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther has no business being as fresh, fun, and immersive as it is. Marvel Studios has come a long way since Thor: The Dark World, with highlights like spy-thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier and band-of-misfits doing good Guardians of the Galaxy, but the studio seems to have turned another corner with Spider-Man: Homecoming. The three subsequent installments, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War have illustrated big-budget filmmaking at its best; these movies are as lively as they funny and original. Marvel brain Kevin Feige found traction with innovative creative teams before the Marvel brand could become formulaic and stale, as seemed inevitable just years ago.
For Black Panther, the credit belongs to Ryan Coogler, co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, and an all-star cast that includes the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and Letitia Wright. Though the CGI wasn’t always able to match the creative team’s collective imagination, stepping into Wakanda is a transportive experience. Coogler and co.’s most impressive feat, though, is the movie’s weighty themes. Usually the prevailing memory from a comic book movie is a joke, superhero team-up, or a fight scene. In Black Panther, it might be Killmonger’s motivation, a leader’s struggle to meet the needs of his people, or the move toward globalism from a historically isolationist nation.
Seventeen Marvel movies came and went before one was led by a person of color. Black Panther gives me hope that Hollywood has seen enough to stop a streak like that from ever happening again. The movie—on the merits of art or box office return—can only be deemed a success. Like The Dark Knight before it, Black Panther is complex and challenging, not just for a movie that features grown adults wearing costumes and beating each other up, but in general. It delivers as a popcorn flick and as a piece of moral philosophy.