It’s true, Black Panther is a very different kind of Marvel movie. But, before we continue, I feel like this is a sentence that has been thrown around a lot. (And, yes, I am guilty of this.) There’s some truth that the earlier, Phase One Marvel movies did tend to have a similar feel as a way to establish this new universe. But somewhere along the line, that changed – probably starting with Shane Black’s brilliant Iron Man 3, and even further with Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and even further again with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, that stigma has stuck with Marvel, even though it’s fairly obviously no longer true. No reasonable person can watch Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther back-to-back and say, “Those movies felt the same.”
And I mention Thor: Ragnarok because no two Marvel movies have been released so close to each other like this and yet been so vastly different. While Thor: Ragnarok is basically a comedy, Black Panther is about a completely independent African nation debating if it should use its secretly powerful influence in the outside world – and if so, how should it be used? Should it be a show of power, to rid the world of oppressors? Or should it be used more strategically? Black Panther is about the internal struggle of mighty Wakanda over what to do about the people struggling all over the rest of the world.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther starts disappointingly, with animation accompanied by narrated exposition to explain the history of Wakanda – and frankly it’s the only part of the movie that doesn’t really work, because this kind of introduction just never works. Understandably, the filmmakers were in a tough spot, because there’s a lot to explain and it would probably take another 20 minutes to give the audience this information in a more natural way. For anyone who has read the current run of the comic, this is a dense story with a lot of information to relay. But, unfortunately, this gives Black Panther a bit of a lumbering start. The good news: the film more than recovers.
The film then takes us to Oakland, circa 1992, back when T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa, was Black Panther and king of Wakanda. He’s in Oakland to confront N’Jobo (Sterling K. Brown), who has been selling vibranium — a powerful metal that surrounds Wakanda and gives the nation its technology — to an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). What happens this night in Oakland will come back to haunt T’Challa many years later.