So after watching "Black Panther" with two officemates, we naturally started talking about the movie -- about politics and oppression, about Eric Killmonger being the best villain since Loki, about the otherworldly design that's just a notch below Star Wars, about the absolutely badassery of the Dora Milaje, about the functionality of the Border Tribe robes -- when one of us quipped: "We haven't talked about the fight scenes yet."
And there was still so much more to unpack.
"Black Panther," the latest superhero epic from Marvel Studios directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, will stun, no, will son you hard.
Consider the hype well-deserved: "Black Panther" is a straight-up, legit masterpiece of cinema superheroics, a stonecold classic that stands on its own regardless of the success of its forebears. At times, you feel sucker-punched by its mythic underpinnings, whether its that long breathtaking glide through the vistas of Wakanda or that first descent into Shuri's lab underneath its mountain.
It is also a complete thing unto its own - take away the Black Panther costumes and the space ships and it's a Tolkien piece, complete with its own Battle of the Five Armies. It is everything that came before but stays its own thing. It is unique.
The distinction - that it is not resting on the laurels of Marvel's billion-dollar blockbusters - is important. The last time we had a Marvel movie that was its own thing, that didn't feel created by committee, that didn't even feel like its ticking off markers for the next Marvel spectacle, was the first "Iron Man" movie.
"Black Panther" is all that and more. This is a movie that is rich in idea and possibility, of characters who are more than just their titles, power sets or metal prostheses. More than just a 4-color story about superheroes, this is a deeply layered examination of a fictional country and its king. You share its hopes, its dreams, its tragedies. When it ends, you want to book a trip to Wakanda -- if only it existed.
"Black Panther" starts off with a flashback - a group of young boys playing hoops using a square box as a basketball ring. We then move to a group of thugs planning what seems to be a heist. One thug senses danger and receives three unexpected guests. What happens next sets the stage that will break a nation.
Flash forward and we pick up right after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," with the death of King T'Chaka and the ascension of T'Challa as the new king of Wakanda. T'Challa is coming home and what a homecoming it is. First, a flight through Wakanda before punching through a holographic projection straight into a city that looks like an outpost from a galaxy far, far away. And then a coronation, where T'Challa must prove his mettle by taking on those who wish to challenge his claim.
No king is complete without his retinue and T'Challa has the best there is: Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the Dora Milaje are the king's fierce bodyguards, Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and Ramonda (Angela Bassett) are his advisers, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is the self-assured ex, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his tech support. Much of the humor comes from the royal family, particularly the rascally but brilliant Shuri. T'Challa may be king but as the story progresses, we find that his family are the ones that keep saving him time and again.
T'Challa's challenge is simple: Wakanda owes its utopian status to a precious extraterrestrial resource called vibranium that the rest of the world wants. A South African poacher named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a cache of vibranium in the past and now wants more. He gets help from a former black-ops soldier named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who has his own agenda for teaming up with Klaue.
Klaue, whose hand turns into a Vibranium cannon, is one of the scariest villains in the Marvel universe but his ruthlessness is no match for the anarchnic machinations of Killmonger. No doubt, Jordan's Killmonger is one of the most satisfying villains in the MCU because his grievances against Wakanda and its king are legitimate. When Killmonger finally takes on T'Challa in a stripped down, drag out fight beneath a waterfall, we are moved by the intensity of his rage.
If we must quibble (and quibble we must), the last fight between Killmonger and T'Challa isn't particularly exciting but that's beside the point. The final fight isn't about the fisticuffs but a battle of ideas - of isolationism versus altruism, passion versus activism, revenge versus leadership, gospel versus hip hop. You root for both hero and villain because both ground their arguments in legitimacy but only the better man walks away. You root for a fictional country that dares to stand on its own, for a king that wants what's best for his people.
"Black Panther" may be steeped in black lore but its aspirational aspects are universal. Long live the king.