Released: 16 February 2028
Director: Ryan Coogler
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, and Martin Freeman
After helping to bring his father’s killer to justice, Prince T’Challa (Boseman) assumes the mantle of the Black Panther is crowned king of the hidden kingdom of Wakanda. However, his reign is challenged by his cousin, N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens (Jordan), now a brutal mercenary known as Killmonger who seeks to overthrow T’Challa and begin a global revolution using Wakanda’s advanced technology.
Having co-created Marvel Comics’ First Family of superheroes, the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a number of additional characters and concepts in the pages of the foursome’s adventures, with T’Challa/The Black Panther being one of the most prominent since he was the first black superpowered character in comic books. The Black Panther went on to feature in a critically acclaimed series, join the Avengers, and featured in a number of pivotal Marvel events and politically charged storylines. The Black Panther also saw some exposure outside of the comic books, featuring in the 1994 Fantastic Four cartoon and his own Marvel Knights motion comic series, but a live-action adaptation had been in the works since 1992. Back then Wesley Snipes was attached to the role and became heavily involved with the project, which repeatedly stalled throughout the nineties and failed to get off the ground into the early 2000s. Snipes was forced to bow out of the film by 2010 due to his conviction for tax evasion and, ironically, the very next year Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige pushed the movie into production, though it would be some six years before the film would properly take shape. Chadwick Boseman won the title role after outlining his plans for the character, making his debut in Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016), though the world was shocked and saddened to learn of his death some years later and that he had been battling cancer throughout his MCU tenure. Director Ryan Coogler aimed to make Black Panther a personal, progressive showcase of a sovereign nation that put the spotlight squarely on African-American actors and important messages of racial equality. Accordingly, the production design, sets, and costumes pulled from a variety of cultural influences from Sub-Saharan Africa to mix the traditional with a wash of science-fiction, with this latter aspect being the realm of the numerous visual effects studios employ to bring Wakanda to life. Black Panther proved a massive financial success; it grossed nearly $1.350 billion worldwide and was universally lauded by critics. Reviews praised the film’s refreshing presentation, the performances, and the sheer visual spectacle but, more than anything, Black Panther was praised for tackling themes of racial oppression and depictions. Following Boseman’s untimely death, Feige announced that the role wouldn’t be recast and that Black Panther’s sequel would move the concept into a different direction to ensure a lasting legacy for the beloved performer.
One of the things I love about the MCU is the way they’ve always strived to not be completely dependent on the same characters over and over; while Warner Brothers struggle to utilise any DC Comics characters that aren’t Bruce Wayne/Batman or Clark Kent/Superman, Marvel Studios have been seeding, introducing, or debuting new characters and superhero icons all throughout the MCU to help keep things fresh, expand and enhance their interconnected cinematic universe, and lay the foundation for future crossovers. This has also helped to keep the MCU diverse and dabble in portraying different cultures and types of characters, despite what some naysayers will say about the narrative tone most MCU films take. It’s not surprise, then, that Black Panther proved to be quite a monumental release; we’d seen black superheroes before, of course, most famously Eric Brooks/Blade (Wesley Snipes), but never before had a super film gone so in-depth at portraying an African society, tackling the issues of slavery and oppression felt by the Black community everywhere, or in establishing a fictional African-American culture as one of the most formidable forces in superhero cinema. It can be tough to rewatch Black Panther knowing not only that Chadwick Boseman was battling cancer throughout it but also that he has since passed on; I might not be the most knowledgeable Black Panther fan out there, but his performance really inspired me to want to read more Black Panther stories to explore the character.
My knowledge and experience of the Black Panther isn’t as learned as with other superheroes but he’s definitely been on my radar over the years, often popping up in Marvel cartoons and crossovers I’ve watched and read. Still, my expectations were simply to have a good time with the film and learn a little more about T’Challa as a character; in Civil War, T’Challa was a soft-spoken, honourable, and fiercely loyal man driven to vengeance after his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani) was killed. His arc was about realising that revenge is all-consuming and that there’s a better, more purposeful path he (and anyone, for that matter) can take, even if it means allowing reprehensible villains to live so they can be brought to justice for their actions. In Black Panther, T’Challa’s focus shifts towards the burden of the crown; not only must he stand as Wakanda’s greatest warrior and protector but he must also assume the role of a leader to his hidden nation, one he accepts out of a strong sense of duty and fiercely fights to earn by defeating challenger to the throne and tribal rival M’Baku (Duke) in ritual combat. T’Challa has an easy coolness to him that makes him warm and relatable; he can easily shift from a more light-hearted demeanour to being a warrior and a king and he’s afforded a great sense of vulnerability from the revelations he learns in this film, his feelings for Nakia (Nyong’o), and the times when he’s forced to fight without his powers. Thanks to a mysterious heart-shaped herb, T’Challa is granted superhuman strength and reflexes; these, along with his highly advance Vibranium suit, allow him to defend his nation as the Black Panther, but he’s forced by tradition to have his powers removed by Wakandan shaman Zuri (Forest Whitaker) in order to prove his right to the throne through his natural guile and abilities. luckily, T’Challa is more than up to the challenge and is equally determined to maintain the pretence that Wakanda is a struggling Third World nation in order to keep the wider world from learning of their Vibranium and the true extent of their advanced technology. Ruling not through force or oppression, T’Challa has an extremely relaxed and approachable demeanour; he goofs around with his tech-savvy and enthusiastic younger sister, Shuri (Wright), and makes efforts to extend the hand of peace to all of Wakanda’s nations despite M’Baku’s desires for the throne. However, he’s reluctant to open Wakanda’s borders and share their technology and resources with the world given that, in the past, outsiders have sought only to take the Vibranium for themselves, by force more often than not, and use it for nefarious ends.
This is a view not readily shared with Nakia, T’Challa’s former flame and a “War Dog” from Wakanda’s River Tribe; at the start of the film, Nakia is out in the world fighting to help those less fortunate. Her time in the outside world as one of many undercover Wakandan agents brings her a deeper knowledge of the suffering and neglect that is happening all over the globe, especially to those in Third World nations, and she actively encourages T’Challa to set aside tradition and share Wakanda’s resources and advances with those in need. Others within T’Challa’s close-knit circle aren’t as open to this idea, however; his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and Zuri are both deeply entrenched in the centauries-old traditions of their nation, though only Zuri has witnessed first-hand the lengths Wakanda will go to to keep their true nature a secret. T’Challa’s loyal bodyguard and commander of Wakanda’s formidable Dora Milaje forces, Okoye (Gurira), is quite blunt in her stoic distrust and dismissal of “outlanders”. Although his most trusted lieutenant, she’s duty-bound to accept Killmonger as her king when he assumes the throne but her loyalty to T’Challa sees her, Shuri, Ramona, and Nakia forming something of a rebellion against Killmonger’s tainted rule. Shuri, who may very well rival Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in terms of scientific acumen and arrogance, relishes the opportunity to aid Everett Ross (Freeman), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) liaison to Wakanda, after he’s injured and in using her advanced technology to help break James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) brainwashing from his days as the Winter Soldier. An energetic and somewhat rebellious young girl, Shuri is far more comfortable in street wear, mocking Wakanda’s traditions, and tinkering in her lab; Shuri outfits T’Challa with his gear, including a fancy brand-new fancy Black Panther suit comprised of Vibranium nanotechnology and capable of absorbing and distributing kinetic impact. She’s also able to use hologram technology to remotely drive a Lexus from their lab and, later, even contributes to the final battle against Killmonger and his fellow extremists to safeguard her nation, proving she’s a patriot at heart.
Eccentric South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), now sporting a plasma cannon hidden in a fake arm after his encounter with Ultron (James Spader), returns, now allied with Killmonger, a mercenary with a thing for anime whose entire torso is covered in self-inflicted tribal scars that showcase his bloodthirsty nature. A patient, learned, and driven individual, Killmonger is actually T’Challa’s cousin, N’Jadaka, who was abandoned decades ago after T’Chaka was forced to kill his own brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), after stealing Vibranium alongside Klaue to give power back to oppressed Black people. Just as T’Challa continues to honour his father’s ways, so too does Killmonger seek to use his claim to the throne to acquire the technology and weapons needed to give Black people a fighting chance for the first time. T’Challa is devastated to learn that his father’s ways caused him to grow up without his cousin, and twisted Killmonger into a figure of hatred and radical action, ad his reign as king is tested when Killmonger betrays and kills Klaue and bursts into the Wakandan throne room to challenge his cousin. T’Challa’s reluctance to pursue and kill Klaue, and his alliance with White outsiders, causes some friction between him and his closest friend and ally, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who readily accepts Killmonger and backs him as king for his more forthright demeanour. Killmonger’s prowess is enough to not just best T’Challa but also to seemingly kill him; he then sets about destroying the heart-shaped herb to cement his legacy as the one and only king of Wakanda and orders arming the thousands of Wakandan spies across the world so that repressed Black people everywhere finally have the means to seize power for themselves. Michael B. Jordan is a real standout here, and Killmonger represented a turning point for MCU villains; while, yes, he does end up donning his own Black Panther costume (more of a Golden Leopard) and he does disappear for a large chunk of the movie, Klaue more than fills the void as a side villain, and the justifiable chip on his shoulder from the oppression of his people and his separation from Wakanda due to the actions of T’Chaka makes his motivations not only believable and relatable, but deeply personal not just for T’Challa but for oppressed minorities everywhere.
As soon as Black Panther begins, you can tell that this is a very different film to the usual MCU offerings. In the build up to Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), Marvel Studios definitely doubled down on world-building, character pieces, and smaller scale films with far reaching potential in recent years. However, Black Panther doesn’t just separate itself through a highly advanced society built purely around the marriage of technology and tradition, but also by tackling the subject of race of oppression in our society, making it an extremely relevant and politically-charged film. Now, I’m just a regular, run-of-the-mill White guy, so Black Panther’s appeal and messages hit a little differently for me; I remember the first time I saw it and thinking how I maybe wasn’t the target demographic since its running theme of the oppression of ethnic minorities hasn’t affected me as it would, say, the Black community. It’s not my place to comment on this strife as I haven’t had to experience it but it’s telling that Killmonger is widely regarded as one of the best and most well-rounded MCU villains. In truth, he’s more like an anti-hero, a dark opposite to T’Challa who is just as loyal and dedicated to his people and his cause but in a way skewed more towards a violent uprising. And, honestly, why not? His people (“brothers and sisters”, as he calls them) have suffered atrocities for generations; his personal vendetta against Wakanda for abandoning home and, in his mind, selfishly hoarding their technology perfectly aligns with a very understandable need to strike back at a world that has shown nothing but contempt for “minority” races. In another life, it’s entirely possible that Killmonger could’ve been a force for good and positive change within Wakanda, and T’Challa even has a respect and sympathy for what’s he’s been through, his suffering and his cause, but Killmonger would rather die free as a martyr than even consider being a prisoner.
The main thrust of the film is to set up Wakanda ahead of Infinity War and you really get a good sense of their society, one built on tradition and respect as much as the technological wonders afforded by their massive stockpile of Vibranium. Wakanda’s true nature is a secret to all; not even Everett Ross is aware of his advanced they are thanks to a protective, holographic shield around the mainland and a major plot point throughout the film is the lengths Wakanda’s royal family have gone to to maintain their secrecy out of fear of their Vibranium being misused. This is at the centre of both T’Challa and Killmonger’s stories and shapes both of their perspectives throughout; T’Challa comes to realise that Wakanda needs to change and put their resources to good use and Killmonger has no hesitation about perverting those same resources to incite an all-out revolution. While so much of Wakanda is rooted in tribal rituals, from their structures to their traditions and their attire, the nation is bolstered by highly advanced technology that more than rivals Stark’s. Black Panther utilises a suit of almost magical nanotechnology, one that forms over his entire body at his convenience and makes him functionally invincible since it can absorb and unleash kinetic energy. Wakanda’s tech is so advanced that they’re entirely self-sufficient, Shuri can create energy-based weapons in gauntlets and shields and such, and they’re able to heal critically wounded people with ease, to say nothing of their futuristic craft that boast cloaking technology, electromagnetic pulse devices, and fly at incredible speeds. Although Wakanda is a largely peaceful and united nation, there are ripples in the water; W’Kabi is suspicious of T’Challa’s dealings with the outside world and T’Challa’s rule is challenged by M’Baku, whose animalistic and antagonistic Jabari tribe has distanced themselves from the luxuries enjoyed by mainstream Wakandan society. Though noticeably different from his comic book counterpart, Man-Ape, M’Baku is a fantastic addition to the film; he and his tribe have little interest in helping those who they feel look down on them. M’Baku’s proud nature and disapproval of T’Challa’s reign resulted in some powerful moments, such as him dismissing Everett Ross and even restoring T’Challa to life and power despite their rivalry. While he initially has no interest in helping T’Challa further than that, M’Baku is a man of honour who recognies Killmonger’s threat, leading to an unlikely and enjoyable alliance between the Jabari and the Dora Milaje after Okoye finally chooses loyalty to T’Challa over loyalty to the throne.
While traditions and technology are very much at the forefront of Wakanda, Black Panther is also rooted in spirituality; not quite the cosmic or more tradition magic seen in the MCU before, this spirituality is more supernatural and natural, imbuing the heart-shaped herb with properties that bestow superhuman abilities and allowing T’Challa to converse with his father’s spirt on the Ancestral Plane. We’ve seen since how the MCU has really taken the concept of multiple Gods and afterlives and really ran with it, but it all started here, in a kind of meditative wrapping that showed a deep connection to oneself and the lineage that had come before. This spirituality and belief in ages-old traditions is tested when Killmonger reveals T’Chaka’s shady past, but still heavily informs T’Challa’s character; he loves his homeland and will do anything to protect it, whether that’s shielding it from thieves like Klaue or opening Wakanda’s borders to provide aid to the oppressed. This spirituality also informs many of the film’s fight scenes; there’s a serene grace to the Black Panther, who moves with a deft agility that makes him an extremely effective combatant even without his costume. Okoye and the Dora Milaje favour more traditional weapons, but ones augmented by Shuri’s tech; in Wakandan hands, spears and shields before advanced weapons requiring years of training and physical skill to wield as their form and function is rooted in traditional tribal weaponry. They also have futuristic vehicles and energy-based weapons, which allow even the likes of Shuri to hold their own in battle and allow Black Panther to have a unique visual flair to its action and fight scenes. Even when undercover in a casino in Busan, the film separates itself from its MCU predecessors by first infusing a James Bond influence and then showcasing Okoye’s swift and brutal spear-play. Klaue might not pose the physical threat that Killmonger represents but his despicable nature, cruelty, and unsettling artificial arm cannon make him a reasonable secondary threat; he’s mainly there as a loose end and a means to an end to grant Killmonger entry into Wakanda but still manages to cause T’Challa trouble during an incredible car chase through Busan. Twisted by Killmonger’s influence, W’Kabi defends his new king’s designs for Wakanda, even to the point of clashing not just with the Dora Milaje but with his own wife, Okoye, allowing Black Panther to conclude with a suitably dramatic large-scale conflict that even sees Everett Ross put his life on the line to stop Killmonger from taking Vibranium weapons out of the country.
Forshadowing the large-scale battles we’d see in the next two Avengers movies, Black Panther ends with two big action set pieces: one pitting those loyal to T’Challa against Killmonger’s fanatics (including armour-clad rhinos and Vibranium weapons galore) and another, far more personal fight between the two would-be kings. As impress as all these sequences are, however, it can’t be denied that the CGI falters somewhat here; Black Panther and Killmonger don ridiculously similar costumes and their fight is largely realised through rubbery CGI characters against the dark and overly visually complex Vibranium mines. While I get the idea of Killmonger wanting to take T’Challa’s place (literally and figuratively) and claim his mantle, I think his default appearance was suitable enough and it would’ve been better to lean into that for his “costume” so that they could be more easily distinguishable. Still, if you can overlook that, their final clash is quite the intense affair; with Killmonger threatening to pervert everything Wakanda stands for, and having already proven himself T’Challa’s equal and better without the benefits of superhuman powers or technology, this is as much a clash of ideals as it is fists. In the end, T’Challa’s greater experience with Wakanda proves to be the difference maker as Shuri’s able to disrupt both of their suits to put them on equal ground and allow T’Challa to outmanoeuvre Killmonger and deliver a mortal wound. Sharing his own experiences with revenge and sympathetic to his cousin’s plight, T’Challa offers mercy but Killmonger refuses, opting to witness his first Wakandan sunset and die peacefully rather than be incarcerated. T’Challa takes the whole experience to heart, however, and works to make amends for Killmonger’s cause and harsh upbringing; he establishes and outreach centre in the United States and reveals Wakanda’s true nature to the world at the United Nations with the promise of sharing their resources with those in need. To exemplify just how beneficial Wakanda can be to even the most tortured individual, a post-credits scene shows Bucky (affectionately referred to as the “White Wolf”) being gifted a new Vibranium arm, now firmly on the road to recovery. It’s a bittersweet ending knowing that we’ll never get to see Chadwick reprise his most iconic role, and considering all the hardship Killmonger and others like him have had to endure over the generations, but one that sends a message of hope and positive change for all repressed peoples.
We’d seen a lot from the MCU when Black Panther came out and were on the cusp of some ground-breaking and game-changing events, and yet it still managed to make one hell of an impression. At the base level, it’s a beautiful film to look at and really captures the allure and mysticism of Africa; Wakanda is such a unique place, like a slice of cosmic, futuristic utopia amidst the wrappings of nature and centuries-old tradition, marrying tried-and-tested ways and beliefs with highly advanced technology. T’Challa is no slouch either, being an affable and alluring hero who it’s easy to root for; he’s gifted great power and capable of great things, but remains loyal and true to himself, never cracking under the burden of responsibility to backing down from a challenge, while still remaining level-headed enough to use diplomacy wherever possible. Naturally, a standout was Killmonger, probably the MCU’s most complex villain yet; his commentary on the oppression of ethnic minorities remains sadly all-too relevant even in modern society and he’s easily the most interesting and multi-faceted of Marvel’s dark doppelgängers. Ultimately, Black Panther is a very different superhero film, one that is as much about world building and politics as it is about kick-ass action sequences and spectacular special effects and sets. T’Challa, who has evolved from a revenge-obsessed renegade into a self-assured, prideful leader of a nation, was a welcome addition to the MCU and had such potential as a worthy leader of the Avengers. The final act of the film is maybe a little rushed, with perhaps two or three too many plot lines being mashed into the narrative, but it never feels like the pacing is off. The goes to great lengths to set Black Panther up as a diplomat who is not against suiting up and fighting against injustice when it rears its ugly head, but also to establish Wakanda and its people as a force to be reckoned with going forward no matter who assumes the Black Panther’s mantle.
Did you enjoy Black Panther? How do you think it holds up compared to other MCU films and as an adaptation of the character? What did you think to the film’s visual presentation and fight scenes? How did the depiction of racial oppression affect you, if at all? Where would you rank Killmonger amongst the hierarchy of MCU villains? Who would you like to see become the new Black Panther? Whatever you think about Black Panther, feel free to share your thoughts and memories of Chadwick Boseman in the comments below or on my social media.