Black Panther Is a Marvel Movie Superpowered by Its Ideas

It isn’t just great for what it is. It’s great for what it says.

Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in Black Panther.
Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in Black Panther. Marvel Studios

Black Panther, the latest entry in Marvel’s shared cinematic universe, is a remarkable feat of world building and visual craft. Its setting, the fictional central African nation of Wakanda, is a technologically advanced wonderland light years ahead of the rest of the world that lives and breathes unlike anything we’ve seen from Marvel Studios or the superhero genre at large. Its protagonist, King T’Challa—who fights in defense of his nation as the Black Panther, equipped with a bulletproof suit and imbued with enhanced strength, speed, and agility—is played with both regal confidence and real vulnerability by the versatile Chadwick Boseman.

But what drives Black Panther isn’t its visuals or superheroics. What drives the film is its pursuit of the idea that arguably defines the superhero genre, best articulated in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And what makes Black Panther unique is that it pursues this in the context of its characters and its setting. It asks not just, “What is T’Challa’s responsibility to Wakanda?” but “What is Wakanda’s responsibility to the world?”

First, the basics. Black Panther is unmistakably a film from Marvel Studios, with all the humor, action, and callbacks to past movies that act as a connective tissue between the different entries in its megafranchise. But it strains against that template. Throughout the movie, director Ryan Coogler delivers moments that feel as rooted and personal as anything in his previous films, while building environments that carry a real sense of atmosphere and place. Wakanda is fantastical, but in Coogler’s hands it feels as real and as lived in as the Oakland, California, of Fruitvale Station or the Philadelphia of Creed, the two films he wrote and directed before signing up with Marvel.

Chadwick Boseman anchors the film, but he is nearly upstaged by an impressive cast of cinematic veterans and relative newcomers. Lupita Nyong’o shines as Nakia, T’Challa’s close confidante who hopes to see her country take a larger role in the world. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira gives what ought to be a star-making turn as Okoye, the fierce leader of Wakanda’s royal guard. Letitia Wright steals the lion’s share of the movie’s laughs as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and a technological wunderkind who develops the tools and weapons deployed by her brother. (It is worth noting here that this is probably the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in which women drive the story and plot as much as their male counterparts.) Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis give more than capable performances, as they are wont to do, and Sterling K. Brown makes an unexpected, moving appearance as an important relative of the king.

The most dynamic performance, however, comes from Michael B. Jordan, a longtime collaborator of Coogler’s who dominates the screen as Erik Killmonger, T’Challa’s chief rival. With Killmonger, Coogler and Jordan give us the single most compelling villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not just Jordan’s muscular build and physical presence. It’s the fire in his eyes. Driven by pain, anger, and ideology, this is a character who believes in his cause with an almost religious fervor. And critically, it’s hard to say that he’s wrong.

Which gets us back to the ideas in Black Panther. The plot is straightforward. Set shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film begins as T’Challa prepares to take the mantle of king. When an old and dangerous adversary appears on Wakanda’s radar—carrying a stolen cache of vibranium, the fictional metal that is the source of the nation’s wealth—the new monarch springs into action, hoping to bring him to justice while securing Wakanda’s future and continued secrecy. But his path crosses with Killmonger, who hopes to use Wakanda’s power and technological prowess to spark a revolution of oppressed peoples around the world, exporting weapons and assistance to those who suffer under the boot of racial oppression.

From the view of the American-born Killmonger, Wakanda and its leaders are morally bankrupt. They’ve isolated themselves with their wealth and technology, indifferent to the fate of the African diaspora. They have great power, but they won’t take responsibility, cloistering themselves away from the world, when they could rule it, inverting racial and colonial hierarchies. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” declares Killmonger at one point in the film, imagining a future where an unconquered people become conquerors themselves in the service of liberation.

It’s a provocation that flows directly from the premise. If there were a Wakanda—a powerful African nation that never experienced colonization and white supremacy—wouldn’t it have an obligation to those African peoples, and their descendants, who lacked the resources to defend themselves? And if it took revolutionary action to liberate them, wouldn’t that revolution be justified, just desserts after centuries of theft and bloodshed? Killmonger, a man who has experienced racism intimately, says yes. T’Challa, privileged to have never experienced the sting of color caste, says no. And Nakia, who has traveled the continent and believes Wakanda has a humanitarian duty to the world, plots a middle course. With great power, what exactly is the responsibility?

Of course, Black Panther isn’t a political thriller. These conflicts and tensions play out in action as much as dialogue, and the ideas come naturally. There are no mouthpieces speaking on behalf of the writers. But it is fair to say that Black Panther is the most political movie ever produced by Marvel Studios, both in its very existence—it’s the most expensive movie to have ever starred an almost entirely black cast—and in the questions its story raises. Indeed, the ideas are almost too big: There are times when you wish they, and the characters, had more space to breathe.

The best superhero films don’t transcend the genre as much as they embrace it in all its respects. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie captured the wonder and optimism of the Superman mythos. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 did the same, fully realizing the earnest melodrama and quotidian feel of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s first comics. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight distills both Batman and the Joker to their cores and raised the bar for what this kind of blockbuster could accomplish.

With its aesthetic ambition, depth of imagination, and genuinely challenging themes, Black Panther belongs with this group. It doesn’t just capture the essential qualities of the character, it expands on the concept itself, standing as a film that matters for what it says as much as what it is.

Black Panther could have been just another Marvel romp—a fun but ultimately disposable entry in the studio’s catalogue. But Ryan Coogler and company had the power, and perhaps the responsibility, to do much more. And they did.

Read more in Slate about Black Panther.