Obviously, there’s something a little different about Black Panther. But what could it be? This Marvel hero lives in the jungle, so it’s a change in scenery. Or maybe we’re visually struck by that elder with the lip plate – Captain America never wore one of those. Another oddity is the kickass fleet of warriors who just happen to be women. That’s certainly new. But there’s something else too… An obvious absence of white people. It’s funny how a different casting perspective brings such a feeling of relief. Vanilla cake is delicious and I could eat it every day, but on that special day when a colleague puts chocolate cupcakes in the kitchen with a note reading, “Enjoy,” suddenly it’s every staff member for themselves. It’s refreshing for a Marvel movie to take its eye off of white New York for like five minutes and move to another continent known for colour, ceremony, and family traditions. That is, family traditions beyond a post-workout shawarma.
A king in a cat suit wants his people to be left to their own business in their jungle box. You can’t really sum Black Panther up in a line. It begins a few weeks after T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father is killed in Civil War. This makes T’Challa king of the third world African country, Wakanda. At least, that’s what they want you to think. Wakanda is actually built on a mountain of vibranium, the strongest, rarest, most manipulative metal on earth. It’s the penicillin of alloys. The Wakandans shut themselves off centuries ago and used this resource to build a prosperous, self-sustaining, technologically-advanced country of happy citizens. When T’Challa inherits the throne he also inherits the old question: is it right to keep these resources from the rest of the world? The question is answered by the outsider, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to put advanced Wakandan weapons in the hands of the oppressed worldwide and finally overthrow the colonisers. T’Challa isn’t convinced, but the Wakandan tradition of shrugging the strongest candidate into power may mean that T’Challa has no place to voice his opinion.
It’s a good thing T’Challa is a fast learner and even better that he’s surrounded by fantastically well-trained warriors who are sworn to serve. T’Challa is a pretty chill powerhouse who can hold his own against an angry African Korg, but let’s turn our attention to the Wakandan women for a second. They are bald, bold, and badass AF. Every woman in Black Panther is as tough as the vibranium they protect: Nakia the spy (Lupita Nyong’o), General Okoye (Danai Gurira), little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and the honour guard of spear-wielding sisters. You only need a handful of employees when every one is a teamworking specialist.
They throw magic spears, fly magic planes, invent magic gadgets, and laugh at every outsider (we) who call these things magic. Those Fedora Bellagio warriors (Dora Milaje?) are well-equipped and have mad respect for the teenage princess who outfits them. Shuri is the Q of this intelligence operation and clearly holding up the humour for the rest of her royal family. She’s a crucial piece of the Black Panther fabric and I can’t wait for her to meet Tony Stark.
The other piece of the fabric is the collision of different tribes and their technologically-enhanced traditions. Move over, Harry Potter, there’s a new magic cloak in town and it has a high appreciation for personal space. Black Panther’s wardrobe designer had a heavy task to represent so many cultures in one go. But Ruth E. Carter made it happen, even squeezing in the occasional casino gown and functional sneaker. I would kill for a pair of Nakia’s heals, assuming that they, like everything else, are made of vibranium.
The technology is mesmerizing and the casual welcome into this cultural paradise is so refreshing, but I didn’t just come for the visuals. Black Panther follows the Marvel formula and is overall pretty predictable. There’s nothing original about an inexperienced king being threatened by an outsider who sees his chance to rule. Even so, that predictability is balanced by the rising anticipation. You know that Black Panther is heading to a grandiose final battle, but when it arrives it delivers. Seeing those spear-wielding warriors on one side and charging mountain men on the other makes us lean forward and say, “Here we go.”
There are two after-credit scenes. Don’t be like half the people in my theater who had clearly never seen a Marvel movie before and left before we’d thanked the key grip and caterers. Black Panther is very entertaining in an actiony kind of way. There aren’t many twists in the plot, but there are satisfying car chases and everything you’d expect from tribal warfare with heavily advanced tech. Black Panther is a fresh start to this action season and 8.5 stampeding rhinos out of 10.