Matt at the Movies: Black Panther Changes the Marvel Universe
All Hail the King
Let's start with the obvious: Black Panther is still a Marvel film.
Thanks to Captain America: Civil War, the movie mostly skirts the origin story, since we already saw T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assume the mantle of Wakanda's protector after his father is murdered in a terrorist attack on the United Nations. But there's still the villain's backstory, the struggle of the protagonist to become the hero his people need, the major battle in the third act that will decide the fate of the world.
All of those things are there, marking familiar territory that we've seen from this franchise again and again (Black Panther is - yes, believe it - the 18th installment). And yet it's a Marvel movie unlike any Marvel movie we've seen.
Black Panther is the first major studio mega-budget film - in the superhero genre, or perhaps any genre - to feature an almost entirely black cast and helmed by a black director. Ryan Coogler does not waste the opportunity, showing fans a side of the Marvel universe that is unabashedly divergent from the white, eurocentric narratives that have preceded him.
The movie takes place just a week after the events of Civil War, with T'Challa set to become king. As he mourns the loss of his father, he is unsure of how to lead his nation. There are some who wish to share Wakanda's resources, the precious metal vibranium and the source of their advanced technology, with the world. But for generations, Wakanda has remained isolated, fearful that sharing their secrets will invite unwanted conflict with the rest of the world.
When a source of vibranium on the open market surfaces, T'Challa tries to contain it. Helping him are Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general of the Dora Milaje, Black Panther's all-female bodyguards, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy for Wakanda and a former love interest of T'Challa. Their investigation leads them to a mysterious Wakandan, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who claims a right to the throne.
The movie has some great action scenes. It's particularly awesome to see the Dora Milaje at work. Black Panther himself (as the superhero) isn't in the movie as much as I might have liked, and it's not as humorous as other Marvel outings, which I missed. An odd love story between Okoye and W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), which banks an emotional turning point later in the film, is largely only mentioned, never seen.
Plot-wise, the movie is nothing special. But it does explore some social themes that make it more resonant than other Marvel movies. It's also fun, moves along at a nice clip, and is a celebration of African culture that deserves to influence many more films like it.
If we're lucky, the Marvel universe will never be the same again.