Black Panther arrives with a lot of fanfare; it’s sure to generate discussion about its status as a genuinely progressive piece of representation, and it should — but it’s also a seriously entertaining pop confection, not-infrequently visually arresting, idiosyncratic, and loaded with engaged performances from a stacked cast. It has actual dramatic stakes, which are not usually encountered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it snowballs into possibly the most satisfying crowd-pleaser the franchise has managed so far.
The pop bliss on display isn’t just a dose of sugar to help the film’s politics go down smoother.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of fictional African nation Wakanda and also its local superhero, tracks down enemies of his state with the help of some decidedly cool gadgets, and an invulnerable super suit. Director Ryan Coogler does a generally solid job with the action; the hand-to-hand fights aren’t covered nearly as fluidly as the boxing sequences in Creed, his last movie, but a faux long-take setpiece in a casino that segues into a rambunctious car chase is a total showstopper that wouldn’t be out of place in a 007 movie, something Black Panther strongly resembles at its very best. Even the end credits could double as a Bond opener.
But the pop bliss on display isn’t just a dose of sugar to help the film’s politics go down; instead, they’re a crucial element of those politics. The film’s afro-futurist utopia, hidden from the outside world but seemingly capable of solving many of its problems, provides not just a vividly-imagined backdrop but also a central moral conflict and adds a welcome complexity to the film’s villain, an exiled prince (Michael B. Jordan) who wants to supplant Wakanda’s isolationist position and use its technological superiority to support worldwide armed revolution against white supremacy. Injecting a little Frantz Fanon into a $150 comic book movie is seriously an ambitious idea, and it pays off so shockingly well that it elevates the entire enterprise into something that isn’t afraid to both lean into the more absurd elements of its premise (there’s a rhino fight!) and demand to be taken seriously.