Early in Ryan Coogler's half-revolutionary, half-conventional superhero epic Black Panther, the title character returns to his fictional African homeland of Wakanda aboard a futuristic aircraft. As the plane – impressive in its aesthetic conception but lacking in its CGI actualization – prepares to enter the country's airspace, it gently pierces layer after layer of holographic illusion. Wakanda, you see, is a high-tech nation hidden in plain sight from the rest of the globe, the stereotypical third-world image of the African continent – cattle fields, towering mountains, lush rain forests – a wink-nudge mask for the ultra-modern nation that thrives underneath.
"This never gets old," whispers the cat-suited hero (Chadwick Boseman) as Wakanda's skyscrapers and gravity-defying trains come into view.
Except, it does get old – the use and abuse of weak VFX, the McGuffin-driven narrative, the climactic duels that pre-guarantee the victor, the set-pieces that echo a thousand other whiz-bang battles that came before. Eighteen films in, Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become a ruthlessly efficient machine expert at pumping out mass-market adventures for the juvenile, and the juvenile at heart.
Yet to the infinite credit of Coogler and his team – notably amassed from outside Marvel's assembly line, including such regular Coogler collaborators as cinematographer Rachel Morrison, composer Ludwig Goransson, and production designer Hannah Beachler – Black Panther fights constantly and bitterly against the familiar constraints of Disney's superhero industrial complex. At every turn, the expectations of the genre, the bland sameness that breeds cinematic comfort for the millions who line up to fill Marvel's coffers, are met by the director with resistance and creative intensity.
So yeah, we all know that Black Panther, a.k.a. Prince T'Challa, is going to triumph over adversity in his bid to bring harmony to the kingdom of Wakanda, that there will be the obligatory action sequences where actual danger is a distant possibility for both hero and bystander, and that the plot will pivot on a mysterious object of unknown origin ("Vibranium," in this case – don't worry if it sounds unfamiliar; the film's characters will mention it at least three-dozen times over the course of the movie). What we don't expect is for Black Panther to so fervently counter obligation with innovation, homogenity with diversity.
Coogler's more radical approach to the MCU starts behind the scenes – Morrison shoots the corners of Wakanda with as much intensity and pure fascination as she did Oakland, Calif., in Coogler's feature debut Fruitvale Station; Ruth E. Carter's eye-popping costumes deserve to be toured around the world now and forever – and reaches a thrilling high with the performers he elevates on-screen.
Make no mistake, this cast is stacked as high as a Wakandan office tower: the stoic and charming Boseman, sure, but Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong'o, Sterling K. Brown, and Angela Bassett, too. Also: Winston Duke as a rival Wakandan leader, Danai Gurira as T'Challa's chief bodyguard, and breakout Letitia Wright as a spin on Ian Fleming's gadget guru Q. Oh, and Michael B. Jordan, the dynamo who made his bones with Coogler's Fruitvale and Creed and here brings a burning intensity to the role of T'Challa's main nemesis Killmonger, a mercenary who deserves far more screen time than he receives.
The fact that nearly every performer is a person of colour may seem incidental, so easily does each star fit into Coogler's world, but at the same time the casting is necessary, thrilling, and long overdue. Black Panther may not be the first superhero film to place a black lead front and centre – Wesley Snipes made two great Blade movies plus another one, and the '90s delivered a handful of now-forgotten fare with black men behind the mask (Spawn, Steel, Blankman, The Meteor Man) – but it is the first to surround its hero with an equally diverse cast, and announce itself as the new blockbuster status-quo, not a one-off alternative for a widely underrepresented audience.
Or that's the hope. The fact that it took until 2018 for T'Challa – created at the height of the civil-rights movement in the '60s – to earn his own film while prior superhero projects have centred on a talking tree and too many Batmen to count is disgraceful. The same goes for the fact that the Black Panther is the only character that the MCU seems to think needed a test-run introduction (via a supporting role in 2016's Captain America: Civil War) before getting a movie with his name in the title. (For the nitpickers ready to pounce: No, the MCU iteration of Spider-Man doesn't count here, because there have already been approximately 13 different on-screen Peter Parkers in my lifetime.)
For anyone (everyone?) bombarded with clips from the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War, it's clear that the MCU isn't relegating T'Challa to this sole adventure. But the true test for Disney's commitment to the character – and for its desire to tell diverse stories for diverse audiences – is not only who is allowed entry past its gates, but what access they are granted once inside. Hiring Coogler was the best decision the corporate behemoth has made since signing Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok, but the Mouse House needs to trust its artists more, and allow them the freedom to break and rebuild the MCU's dusty and rote rules.
As Coogler builds Black Panther to a finale that feels just different enough from typical MCU entries – the climactic battle is only about Wakanda, not the exhausting whole-wide-universe stakes we're used to; the fights are mostly physical and hand-to-hand; plus, there are some awesome giant rhinos involved – it is easy to get lost in hopeful optimism that this is the future of the superhero film. That, here, Coogler and his team are going to remake the beast from the inside out. But then the action is muddled by some unnecessary and meaningless CGI pyrotechnics, a holdover character from a previous MCU film (a white dude, naturally) is shoved into the spotlight, and we all brace ourselves for the typical post-credits stinger.
This is a Marvel film, after all. It does get old, no matter how much we all hunger for, and deserve, the new.
Black Panther's main theme, as neatly summarized midway by T'Challa's father, is that "it is hard for a good man to be king." The same lesson might be applied to Coogler, or anyone hoping to bring diversity, energy, and innovation to Marvel movies: It is hard for a good director to be king – especially when Disney is watching the throne.