Author’s Note: This is the final chapter in my MCU revisit. It’s a week behind Infinity War’s release because they moved the release date up a week! Thank you so much for following along, I hope you enjoyed it!
Not long after we meet T’Challa’s sister Shuri for the first time she reminds her brother, “just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.” That statement could apply to Black Panther itself. The MCU has been working for a long time. For a decade now, specifically with its most recent run of films, Marvel has had an overwhelmingly successful record. But that doesn’t mean that its product cannot be improved. Enter Black Panther, a culturally rich, layered, and electrifying piece of superhero filmmaking.
When we first enter the hidden country of Wakanda T’Challa remarks out loud that the reveal of his home never gets old. It’s easy to see why. The afrofuturist production design is breathtaking. The country is technologically advanced while being firmly grounded in and enveloped by its African roots. This is echoed by the film’s score which mixes traditional orchestral elements with African drums, chanting, and vocal expression. The artistry at work throughout every aspect of Black Panther gives the film a deep history and realism before its characters ever speak.
When its characters do speak, however, they are just as deeply drawn as their surroundings. T’Challa, Okoye, and most notably, the film’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, are three of the strongest characters in the whole of the MCU. Black Panther deftly presents varying perspectives in such a way that all of them can be understood and empathized with. I refer to Killmonger as the antagonist because he’s just barely a villain. If he didn’t try to achieve his goals through criminal acts he could easily be debating Wakandan policy with T’Challa in the throne room. Okoye, similarly, is like T’Challa, morally upstanding but when N’Jadaka (Killmonger) takes over, she stays loyal to her duty to the throne over T’Challa and his family. This is not portrayed as a turn to the dark side or villainy but instead as an understandable and wrenching decision that is true to her nature.
This leads me to the two most standout things about Black Panther 18 films into the MCU. First and foremost, it’s villain, the aforementioned Killmonger. Not only does he arguably usurp Loki as the MCU’s best thanks to Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic performance, the film handles him pitch perfectly as well. Though it’s no doubt tempting to keep Killmonger around like Loki before him and watch his character evolve in a similar way, coming closer to our hero’s side, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler ends his arc within the film. In doing so, however, Killmonger deeply influences T’Challa and actually moves him to bring Wakanda out of the shadows. It is remarkable to see a “villain” affect a hero in such a way. Additionally, this is something that Nakia had also pushed for which leads me to the film’s second standout aspect – its women.
There have been some memorable strong women in the MCU before – Black Widow, Gamora, Nebula, and Hope Van Dyne (soon to be The Wasp) for example. And yet they’re not often given the same spotlight or care as the heroes they often play second fiddle to. Black Panther changes all that with its trifecta of incredible women – Okoye, Shuri, and Nakia. All three are three dimensional, capable, and confident. All three have different and clear perspectives on T’Challa, Wakanda, and the world at large. All three are given the chance to shine and be just as badass as Black Panther himself.
Leading into Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther is a welcome reminder that even a decade and 18 films in, the MCU can still up its game and surprise its audience. I hope that with strong characters like Okoye and Shuri in the fold and films like Captain Marvel on the horizon Marvel continues to improve its storytelling, particularly where its female and more diverse characters are concerned. The MCU has proven, specifically with Black Panther that it can craft nuanced heroes and “villains” and explore the shades of grey that exist in the real world, in its next decade it’s time to continue expanding that beyond its title characters.