Kernel Rating (out of 5): (5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 134 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. ‘Black Panther’ is pretty far for the course for most Marvel films: there are numerous action scenes, including a few one-on-one dueling fight scenes with spears, shields, and other weapons; larger-scale battles, with similar weaponry but also flying aircraft; many characters die, including a few from gunshots; a scene where young women are being kidnapped; some cursing, rude language and jokes, and someone giving another person the finger; and a few kisses.
‘Black Panther’ is a revelation, the first film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that truly feels like an of-the-moment masterwork that also happens to be a comic book movie. The themes are multifaceted, the details are rich, the visuals are staggering. ‘Black Panther’ is a radical entry in a franchise that is improved by its energy and its complexity.
By Roxana Hadadi
The Marvel Cinematic Universe should be embarrassed that it’s taken us so long to meet the Black Panther. After entire trilogies about Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, plus scattered other films about talking raccoons and strange doctors, it took years to present the first person of color to front a Marvel film—and the resulting “Black Panther” is flawless.
“Black Panther” is a game changer, an unapologetically radical film that asks confrontational questions about globalism, patriarchy, and race and won’t settle for listless answers. It pulses with an urgency and an energy that is unparalleled by other Marvel films, and it features a cast that is summarily exceptional. Scenes feel luxuriously imagined, the production design is wondrously imaginative, and the script is poignantly intricate. You’ll want to see it a dozen times, and each rewatch would uncover details and elements not yet noticed.
Working from the original Marvel comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, director and cowriter Ryan Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison craft a country and culture in Wakanda that was never colonized. Instead of engaging with the outside world, after being hit with a meteorite of the alien metal vibranium, Wakanda withdrew, guarding its border and pretending to be a third-world country. The isolationism was a front, while in reality, Wakanda prospered, developing the most cutting-edge technology while retaining its cultural traditions and crafting a bold, Afrofuturist utopia.
The leader of that country, King T’Chaka, was killed in the preceding film “Captain America: Civil War,” leaving behind his son, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, of “Marshall”) who returns to Wakanda to take the throne. T’Challa is tentative and principled, composed and regal, but he is ready to assume the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda. Surrounded by women—ex-girlfrend and master spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the all-female special forces Dora Milaje and T’Challa’s closest protector; and little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a genius who has developed numerous new technologies for Wakanda—T’Challa is ready to assume his destiny.
But under his rule, will Wakanda remain cut off from the outside? Nakia, who has seen tragedies and oppression all over the world on her spying missions, wants to open up their borders and use their prowess and technology to help others. Her dream is for Wakanda’s isolationist policies to transform into diplomacy—to upend others’ expectations of their country and to demonstrate who they really are and what they can really do.
T’Challa may be leaning that way, too, until he is confronted by an adversary: Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, of “Creed”), a mysterious figure who appears in Wakanda to challenge his power. Who is Killmonger, what are his motivations, and how does his identity align with or undermine T’Challa’s? What do his brusqueness and his ruthlessness reflect about T’Challa; about the construction of power, who gets to access it, and who is left behind; about a world in which one country kept to itself in the name of protection, but left countless others to suffer? What does it mean to be African American vs. African, to be someone who never knew his ancestral history and never had the opportunity to know his family, compared with someone who confidently knew those elements about himself his whole life, and who is finally being questioned about the privilege of that? What does Erik Killmonger say about Wakanda?
These are lofty issues for the Marvel films, which inched closer to these concepts with last fall’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (which addressed Odin’s violent, colonialist history, and how that affected his relationship with his children and his people), but they are handled magnificently in “Black Panther.” It’s difficult to call Killmonger a villain because Jordan gives such a layered, instantly classic performance, taking the wounded nature of his Adonis character from “Creed” and weaponizing it for a role that demands brutality but also sympathy. And he’s perfectly countered by Boseman, who gave us glimpses into his take on the character in “Civil War” but emerges fully developed here, a man wary of power but willing to wield it for his people. Marvel has always done pairs of characters with differing motivations well—think of Thor and Loki, or Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, or Captain America and the Winter Soldier—but Boseman and Jordan set a new standard here. They are unforgettable both apart and together.
Oh, but everything here is fantastic, really. The strength and confidence of the female supporting cast (Shuri and Okoye will be fan favorites, and Nyong’o as Nakia adds humanity, slyness, and grace to a character who is never just a love interest); the attention given to the different Wakandan tribes, their varying motivations, and their practices; the choreography of the fight scenes, especially the duels set on the edge of a waterfall, which are electric and high-stakes; and the bonkers performances of scene stealers like Andy Serkis and Winston Duke.
“Black Panther” is a blockbuster that checks off the boxes of being a comic book film but further expands the boundaries of that definition in stunning, unexpected, unforgettable ways. What an achievement. What a masterpiece.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.