It’s been five years since Black Panther was released and almost three years since the lead actor, Chadwick Boseman passed. With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever currently in theaters, it comes with the knowledge that we will never truly get to experience the original vision of that film and all the potential beyond it. Black Panther was the first time the MCU dedicated a film to a black actor as its unambiguous lead – with Captain Marvel coming the next year, featuring a female lead for the first time. While there have been many arguments regarding diversity in film, it can be a bit laughable to complain about these two films – as some have – when a white man headed every preceding film. Black Panther had a mountain to climb, but by the end of its theatrical run, it was obvious that the mountain was self-made. The story, the ensemble, and the setting were all impeccably crafted, building a beautiful world in a few hours ten years after the creation of the MCU as a whole. Even as similar beats were hit in this film as were hit in other ones, there was a freshness to Black Panther, one that stayed true throughout its sequel.
T’Challa was previously introduced in Captain America: Civil War, the third film in the soon-to-be tetralogy, as the prince of Wakanda. His role was brief (in the grand scheme of things) but memorable, as he sought revenge for the assassination of his father. His character arc saw him on a journey from a young, vibrant prince to a grieving king in a few days. By the end of Civil War, T’Challa proved that he was not out for blind revenge and was quite capable of mercy. These traits were expanded on immensely in his solo outing. While Marvel works out a cohesive timeline, the film indicates that Black Panther occurs shortly after Civil War, with T’Challa returning with his father’s body. No sooner has he arrived is he meant to compete in ritual combat to maintain his birthright to show that, while Wakanda is a monarchy, it is might that makes right and not just your genetic lineage. Even if T’Challa and his family line have a monopoly on the mantle of Black Panther, that power is not to be used in this combat. T’Challa still proves enough to hold onto the throne.
As I mentioned earlier, Black Panther had a lot of ground to cover. It had to establish the nation of Wakanda, its key characters, and its place in the mythology in a few hours. I continue to marvel at how they handle audiences’ questions regarding these sprawling, interconnected worlds. Since most take place over a relatively short period and mention certain details, it can become increasingly difficult to ignore certain aspects not being mentioned before they are officially introduced. Captain Marvel, Eternals, Doctor Strange, and Shang-Chi were the stories people were questioning the most – with Black Panther on that list. Interstellar conflict, magic, and centuries (or even millennia) long storylines were at the center of these films, and each time they were weaved into the established mythology well. Wakanda, as a nation, has hidden its advances in science and technology for most of its history, allowing many people to dismiss it as a small, relatively unimportant country. In reality, it is the most technologically advanced country in the world – its most notable aspect is the healing of a damaged spine.
We are quickly introduced to Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Okoye (Danai Gurira), W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), Zuri (Forest Whittaker), and M’Baku (Winston Duke), who comprise the upper echelons of Wakanda’s royal court and government. Other important additions introduced throughout the film include Ayo (Lupita Nyong’o) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who are tied to Wakanda but are not operating within its borders by the start of the film. Mind you, it’s for different reasons. We are also reintroduced to three characters from previous films: Martin Freeman plays Everett K. Ross (a CIA officer introduced in Civil War), Ayo (Florence Kasumba), who was his unnamed bodyguard in Civil War, and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who was introduced in Age of Ultron, losing his arm to the titular villain of that film and now working alongside Killmonger in this film.
Ryan Coogler worked closely with each department, ensuring that the cosmetic elements of the world of Wakanda, while fictional, were accurate and consistent. Black Panther invites us to explore a world where African culture was not subsumed by centuries of exploitation. At the same time, it ties into the real world – with the British Museum, called the Museum of Great Britain here, given a spotlight. As many people have become aware, especially in recent years, cultural and historical pieces are hoarded in museums with nothing to do with that culture, and Britain is chief among them. When Killmonger is first introduced in the modern day, it is at this museum, explaining how several artifacts on display were stolen across Africa. Killmonger is more than happy to explain that one of the artifacts they have may have been found in one country, but it is actually from Wakanda – showing that he is more adept at his country’s history than a so-called expert in the field.
The characters’ costumes show the beauty of Wakandan culture through a real-life African lens. Body modification, colorful fabrics, and traditional rituals are on display throughout Black Panther, giving the viewer a clear look into the daily lives of the Wakandan people. While Black Panther focuses on the upper echelons of society, as most stories do, it paints a picture of the broader world. While Wakanda may have isolated itself from the rest of the world in as overtly a manner as possible, it was not ignorant of the world and would plant spies worldwide to protect itself further. Nakia is one of these spies who infiltrates criminal organizations so that she can help people in need. Secondarily, her character acts as T’Challa’s love interest, and it was truly gratifying to see a character whose role in the story was more active than “the main character’s girlfriend.
The varying relationships between the characters are a highlight of Black Panther. The country is still grieving, but the full life that their former king led is celebrated in death and mourned. The underlying pain is addressed and threaded throughout the storyline, but the characters can process it and move the plot along simultaneously. Grief is not something that ever fully goes away, but we can see a world preparing for its next phase in life. This makes the traumatic second half of the film all the more impactful. When Killmonger and Black Panther begin to clash verbally and then physically, the drama escalates because of the secrets around their relationship. While keen viewers would have determined it, the fact that they are cousins would still be shocking as the characters are unrelated in the original comic book version. The blood relation here makes the conflict a deeply personal one. The parallels between T’Challa and Killmonger are evident in the film’s first few minutes when the latter’s father is killed and their desire to change the world. The details surrounding them, though, provide a critical difference. Even if, in the end, Killmonger’s impression remained with T’Challa. On the other side, T’Challa and Shuri have a typical sibling relationship, but the depths of their love for one another are never in doubt.
None of the characters are truly shortchanged. Each is allowed to flourish in their respective positions throughout the film. Whether it be Shuri’s intellect, displayed through her many, varied creations that make life in Wakanda a paradise to Okoye’s loyal protectiveness to the throne and her position as General of the Dora Milaje, which goes beyond who sits on the throne, you can see how they reflect on their roles and the world around them. None of the characters are static, and all of them are well-rounded – with Shuri’s late-in-the-game fight against Killmonger still capitalizing off of her ingenuity and laying the groundwork for her future as one of my favorites scenes. Even the Dora Milaje, loyal bodyguards to the legendarily powerful Black Panther, have devised specific battle techniques in order to take him down – with it only failing because of Shuri’s newly introduced technological advancements to the suits.
Black Panther was one of the most anticipated films of the MCU at the time it was announced. Questions surrounded what the story would be about, specifically how Wakanda would fit into the greater narrative. Seeds were planted in the world long before Wakanda appeared, with one of the most notable being the adaptation of Captain America’s shield – made of Adamantium and the comics and Vibranium in the MCU. Sometimes, you have to take a risk, and Marvel made leaps and bounds with Black Panther. At the end of the day, Chadwick Boseman delivered one of the most powerful performances, and he will forever be synonymous with the character.