The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed not only how superhero movies are made but how blockbuster franchises are handled, though that success has come with a cost. While each successive installment in this seemingly neverending franchise has raised the stakes and expanded upon what came before, the sheer size and scale of the MCU has ironically become its biggest problem to content with. It’s getting increasingly difficult for any new movie in the series — especially solo outings — to make a lasting impression, as most are structured to be stepping stones to the next big crossover event rather than standalone movies with a complete, satisfying plot structure. Black Panther, the 18th MCU installment, is unmistakably a Marvel movie but it may be the first one that actually feels important outside of simply moving the needle along to the next chapter in this sprawling cinematic story of heroes and gods in cool outfits.
Black Panther picks up a short time after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Wakandan prince T’Challa preparing to ascend the throne following the death of his father. While T’Challa adjusts to his new role as both superhero and leader of one of the wealthiest and most mysterious nations in the world, he also must contend with threats from outside and within Wakanda’s borders. Chadwick Boseman really comes into his own here as the title hero, digging far deeper into a character who only had a minor, yet memorable part to play in Civil War. While Boseman’s T’Challa still exudes the same cool confidence he did previously, he is much more vulnerable and fallible this time out, unsure of his fitness to rule and questioning not only his place but that of his extremely affluent home nation in a changing world.
Fortunately, T’Challa has no shortage of people to turn to for help and as good as Boseman is, it’s Black Panther’s (predominately female) supporting cast that carry the film. Wakanda may have a patriarch as its head of state but in many ways, director Ryan Coogler presents the fictional African nation as a matriarchal society in which the women not only play an active role in ruling but are also just as formidable (if not more so) in combat as their male counterparts. Specifically, it’s a trio of actresses who do the heavy lifting and they all light up the screen for different reasons. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o shows up as Nakia, a Wakandan spy whose work has afforded her many valuable connections to the outside world. Nakia also falls into the love interest role but her performance subverts the “woman to be won” trope at every turn. Nyong’o’s playful banter with Boseman may be sweet, but her character is driven by much more than just flirting with the king,. Nakia is conflicted by both her duty to herself and to her country and in some ways is the moral compass of the film, as she believes that Wakanda could be doing more to leverage its abundant wealth and resources to help other nations.