Holy Catman, Black Panther is great. We’re through the pre-hype, the preview think pieces and some killer red carpets at assorted premieres for the much-anticipated Ryan Coogler take on the Marvel comic. And now, just go see it.
For the non-comics folks like myself, the film functions well as a standalone story. T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is the new ruler of Wakanda, a hidden African nation that is rich in technology fueled by a powerful natural substance known as vibranium. The trouble starts when a pair of criminals — Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — try to steal some vibranium for more nefarious purposes. T’Challa is aided by his techie sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright); Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his ex and a spy; and Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of his all-female guard. It’s more complicated, of course, and it’s a bit clunky upfront as so many characters (and their backstories) are set up, but it soon hums along nicely.
And if you want to think more, Coogler loads up the film with nods and subtexts that effectively tie Wakanda to where and how we live in the non-comic world. There’s Wakanda’s success, due in part to being spared colonial and post-colonial meddling, and the troublesome “resource curse.” It still faces the ongoing power struggles of a self-determined nation, plus additional challenges: As a wealthy nation, what does Wakanda owe other poorer countries, and is it even possible to uplift without becoming a meddler? Acknowledged is the historical looting of African cultural items by Europeans, and their repatriation (albeit, here, a bloody one). Of course, Klaue is based in South Africa, and it’s no coincidence that the one American scene is set in Oakland, Calif., home to the other Black Panthers.
I could also be here for days talking about Ruth Carter’s costumes — from T’Challa’s high-tech black catsuit to the astounding variety of colorful African-inspired garments and accessories — as well as the incredible set design. There’s so much to unpack — thematically, visually, hairdo-wise — I don’t even have time to talk about: how great the actors are (also on deck: Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown); or how the female characters all get to be bad-asses; or how Coogler gives Jordan a scene where the emotionally damaged but still vulnerable Killmonger breaks our hearts a bit. Normally I’m inclined to not see comic-book movies in the first place, but this is one I’d like to see a second time.