The title character of Black Panther – the first Marvel superhero film with an African-American lead – has a lot of problems, but the most personal and likely the most important one is that he doesn’t know how to lead his people. He wants to be a good king, but he doesn’t actually know what that entails. Everyone around him has stances of their own – which inform the kind of ruler he becomes over the course of the film – but he’s got to be the one to make the decisions at the end of the day.
For superhero films, which usually tend to be light-hearted affairs in order to appeal to as broad a base as possible, the presence of such thoughtful ideas goes against the grain. But it’s also what you should expect from director Ryan Coogler, whose previous features – the 2013 real-life-inspired Fruitvale Station about the shooting of an unarmed black man, and the 2015 Rocky spin-off Creed featuring the son of the Rocky’s rival – explored social and identity issues on a similar level.
Black Panther does have its comic-book moments for sure, but Coogler isn’t happy with just delivering an action-packed romp, visually-stunning landscapes, and sleek costumes, interspersed with moments of laughter. He wants Black Panther to be more, to stand for something more. And that’s why he keeps hitting the brakes whenever things start to get too superhero-y, and never in a bad way. It’s when the film pauses that it gets the time to talk about what it really wants to talk about.