Early on in Black Panther, Shuri says to her older brother T'Challa, "Just because something works doesn't mean it can't be improved." As the genius in charge of the Wakanda Design Group, Shuri was referring to upgrading the Black Panther's tech. But this jab can also be read in a meta sense, addressing the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Black Panther both defends and improves upon the MCU's proven formula.
Marvel Studios has achieved astronomical success with their shared universe of superhero films, but there have routinely been accusations of "sameness" (and bad CGI) levied at many of their movies due to their adherence to the tried-and-true Marvel formula. 2017's three MCU films took strides to break the Marvel mold: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was ultimately a tale about family dynamics; Spider-Man: Homecoming was a teen comedy Marvel-style, and Thor: Ragnarok was an intergalactic buddy road trip. Black Panther hews more towards a more traditional Marvel movie - the model established by the first Iron Man - but takes it to the next level.
Fans already met Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, so Black Panther isn't so much an origin story of King T'Challa as much as it is about building the world of Wakanda. And what a world it is! Marvel has taken us to far-flung locales like Asgard, Knowhere, and Sakaar, but the technologically advanced hidden African kingdom is one of the most vividly-realized and inviting destinations in the MCU. Meanwhile, the true origin story Black Panther offers belongs to Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger. His secret history uncovers a powerful twist that elevates the movie. Thanks to Killmonger, the MCU's greatest weakness - underwhelming villains - becomes one of Black Panther's greatest strengths.
As Wakanda's new king, T'Challa wrestles with the responsibility of how to wisely use his power to benefit the world. His need to stop Killmonger from unleashing Vibranium weapons on other countries echoes Tony Stark becoming Iron Man to stop Stark weapons from falling into the wrong hands. At the end of Black Panther, T'Challa reaches the same conclusion as Stark that he must use Wakanda's technology to help the world responsibly, but he chooses diplomacy over Stark's grandstanding. The Black Panther acts on a global scale, but essentially, he feels the same kind of altruism that motivates Peter Parker to be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man: "When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you."
Marvel movies are frowned upon for often providing too much set up for the rest of the MCU. There is naturally some Marvel admin in Black Panther, but anyone not up to date on the shared universe can still thoroughly enjoy the film as a stand-alone experience. There are efficient references to the events of Civil War and the tease setting up Avengers: Infinity War is saved for after the main narrative is over - no Soul Stone here. In Black Panther, the movie's story comes first and the shared universe is in service to it, not the other way around.
Lupita N'yongo's Nakia also improves upon the "Marvel Girlfriend" trope by being a smart, independent, and capable love interest who gets to save both the hero and her country. Nor is Nakia alone as Black Panther features a quartet of brilliant female characters: Danai Gurira's Okoye is Wakanda's greatest warrior and proudly fights alongside the Black Panther; Angela Bassett is a noble queen mother Ramonda; and Letitia Wright's irrepressible Shuri all but steals the movie with hilarious one-liners. Of course, Stan Lee also pops up in the movie with a slyly self-aware cameo.
Black Panther is the 18th MCU film but it's proof positive that the Marvel formula continues to evolve and for the better.
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