The first time we see Wakanda in a Marvel movie—the physical location, not a blip on a map or a word spoken in hushed tones—it’s in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, after the credits have rolled. What we see is a futuristic lab, the kind we’ve come to expect in movies. Everything is cobalt steel and glass. There’s a hard geometry to the design, like the way spaceships look in sci-fi movies. Lab technicians wear blindingly white, wrinkle-free outfits—the kinds of things that you can’t wear if you have a pet that sheds. Outside the lab window, we see a misty jungle and an imposing sculpture of a panther. It looks cool. But the next time we would see Wakanda, it would be something else. It would become breathtaking.
If the Wakanda of Black Panther had looked like the Wakanda of Captain America: Civil War, nobody would’ve complained. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther in 1966, Wakanda was a big room of whirling electronic doohickeys—doohickeys that the Black Panther used to trap and hunt the Fantastic Four—hidden under a forest shell. Over the decades, different comic writers fleshed Wakanda out, developing a history and a mythology and a general societal structure for this mysterious technological utopia in the heart of Africa. To see any version of Wakanda in a movie would’ve felt like a victory. But Black Panther director Ryan Coogler made Wakanda look more than cool. He turned it into a world, a place worthy of awestruck landscape shots. A place to get lost.
Black Panther is a superhero movie. We know this. It’s a story about a character that already existed in comics and in another movie, one that would continue to exist in other movies. It has all the hallmarks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the recurring tertiary characters, the post-credits stinger, the general sense that it’s building to something bigger even as it tells its own story. The first real action scene—the one where T’Challa fights a group of human traffickers in Nigeria—is expert superhero myth-making, its gunfire only illuminating tiny glimpses of its hero, working like strobe lights. The movie ends with two CGI musclemen punching and kicking each other, fighting for control of a mysterious fictional energy source. These are all superhero-movie things. Black Panther hits its marks, and it hits them well.
But Black Panther is also something larger than a superhero movie—or maybe it represents an expansion of what a superhero movie can be. T’Challa is not a masked underdog fighting to balance superpowered exploits with a normal life. He is the venerated leader of a nation. He has tough decisions to make, but he never has to decide whether he wants to stop being the Black Panther. His powers aren’t the result of an accident. Instead, he’s part of a long and proud tradition. And he exists within a fantastical context, surrounded by people just as vivid and miraculous as he is. Tonally, Black Panther is closer to Lord Of The Rings or Avatar than it is to most other Marvel movies. (Sometimes, it’s closer to a Bond vehicle, too.) The movie has funny moments, but it mostly eschews the rapid-fire snark of other Marvel movies. And it’s a whole lot less concerned with how its characters interact with the larger universe, more concerned with how they interact with each other. There is a contained sincerity that speaks to a larger confidence, a mastery of the language.
Black Panther is an origin story, but it’s not the story of the Black Panther’s origin. (The origin of the Black Panther is the origin of Wakanda itself, and the movie gets that out of the way in an introductory exposition-dump that plays as a soothing, dreamy bedtime story.) Instead, this is the origin story of Killmonger—the movie’s antagonist figure, but not quite its villain. Crucially, Killmonger is the figure with whom Coogler, Black Panther’s director, identifies. The movie even gives them the shared hometown of Oakland, and it opens with a scene that ties personal reminiscence to crime-movie pastiche, before immediately turning toward the fantastical. The first voice we hear belongs to a young Killmonger. When we meet an adult Killmonger, he’s pulling off a daring heist, something similar to what his father was attempting to plan in that opening scene.
Killmonger has a point of view, and it’s one that the movie grants a certain amount of sympathy. He’s Wakandan by birth, but he’s a black American. In the military, he’s been an active participant in the project of empire. He’s seen the carnage that a hegemonic state can cause. He’s helped oppress other people. But he also knows that there’s this other place, this African Xanadu that has the technology and power to end all that. It won’t. It keeps everything secret, defending its own population at the expense of everyone else. None of this sits well with Killmonger. He’s not operating out of greed, or out of a longing for chaos. He has political objectives. And by the time the movie ends, T’Challa has to admit that those objectives are right, even if he doesn’t agree with the methods.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Killmonger is played by Michael B. Jordan, one of the handsomest and most magnetic actors to come along in many years. Jordan is also the star of Coogler’s other two movies, Creed and Fruitvale Station, which earns him a certain amount of audience sympathy from the jump. (Much has been made of Jordan’s stilted and stagey acting style, especially compared to the movie’s other, more fluid characters, but I like the theory that Killmonger only talks like this because he’s been rehearsing these speeches in his head for his entire life.) From a certain perspective, Killmonger is Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker—the prince who grows up in exile, the one who changes his entire world once he gets a chance to enter it. Killmonger is so sympathetic that Coogler has to show him choking old ladies and murdering his own girlfriend so that we, the audience, don’t get the idea that he’s really the hero. A good villain doesn’t realize he’s the villain. A great villain might not actually be a villain at all. That’s Killmonger.
But it’s not just Killmonger. Black Panther is a movie so fully realized that I know the fifth- or seventh-most important character a lot better than I know, say, Stephen Strange, main character of Doctor Strange. Nakia, Okoye, Shuri, M’Baku—they’re all characters with ideas and view points and personal aesthetics and great lines. (Shuri, dismissive but in love with her own genius: “Another broken white boy for us to fix.”) Even Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, a tertiary villain if ever there was one, brings a wicked physical joy that makes him a whole lot more memorable than the main villains in most other Marvel movies. I love him reveling in the fight he just had in the Busan casino: “That was awesome! Awesome!” Even when he dies, he goes out cackling.
Black Panther has its issues. The ending fight scene gets a bit numbing. There are character arcs—like Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi, betraying his country and his wife for reasons that are never fully explored—that don’t quite satisfy. But you have to demand a lot of a movie to complain about a random supporting character’s illogical decision-making. Black Panther matters, of course, because it’s a beautiful, aspirational view of black life. (The costumes alone!) But it’s also expert pop filmmaking on its own terms. Overwhelmingly popular and genuinely moving in its story of personal journey and philosophical clash, Black Panther is the theoretical ideal of a Best Picture Oscar winner. In the world of superhero cinema—vaguely disreputable, even as it becomes commercially dominant—it’s a tremendous overachievement that it was even able to enter that conversation.
2018 was the year that superhero movies completely took over. Six of the year’s top 10 highest-grossing movies—including the top three—were superhero movies. Movies that never should’ve worked, movies that maybe didn’t work, were raking in hundreds of millions. And even in that company, Black Panther stood tall, pulling in more than a billion dollars and, at least in North America, out-earning the massive crossover event that it was at least partially designed to prop up. Certain moments and scenes and lines immediately entered the cultural vernacular: Wakanda Forever! Is this your king? Don’t scare me like that, colonizer. That, more than the money or the awards-season acclaim, is what puts Black Panther in that Dark Knight realm. It’s a sensational pop culture moment that’s also a great movie. We don’t get enough of those.
Other notable 2018 superhero movies: In a year without the Black Panther phenomenon, the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War would be a runaway winner here. It’s a ridiculous juggling act, a galaxy-spanning cosmic adventure saga that finds room for all these dozens of characters that have become intimately familiar to us over the past decade, giving them all roles to play and building to a genuinely shocking and straight-up upsetting ending. It’s an overwhelming epic spectacle, and it still carves out space for a beaten-down Norse god and a trigger-happy anthropomorphic raccoon to have a serious conversation about anger and loss and doubt. Even if we still can’t properly judge Infinity War until we see how Endgame wraps up all its dangling loose ends, it’s a hell of a thing to pull off.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s other 2018 entry, Ant-Man And The Wasp, felt anticlimactic after Black Panther and Infinity War, but in a way, that’s why it works. Ant-Man And The Wasp isn’t a grand galactic vision; it’s a piece of wacky low-stakes fun where a bunch of appealing actors get chances to be funny and ridiculous by changing sizes at the exact right moments. The San Francisco car chase is an all-timer, and Michael Peña kicks the movie up a couple of notches every time he goes into a motormouthed monologue. Ant-Man will clearly have a serious part to play in the coming operatics, so I’m glad we got one more chance to see him—and Marvel itself, for that matter—just do some silly bullshit.
But the year’s most inventive Marvel movie—and maybe the most purely enjoyable—didn’t come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse comes up with a whole new animation style to dive dizzily into the absurd, wonderful silliness of comic book cosmology, telling a light and efflorescent and moving coming-of-age story while still making actual characters out of a goofy noir reboot and a manga robot. The fact that my kids can now identify Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, is a strange and beautiful thing. The fact that they love him is nothing short of a miracle. And the fact that they could make any sense at all out of a movie about overlapping fictional universes and piled-up identities is a testament to some truly incredible filmmaking.
Spider-Man’s movie caretakers pulled off another coup when they managed to get anything—anything at all, really—out of Venom. Thanks to various corporate agreements, this meant a movie about Spider-Man’s toothy, face-munching half-alien doppelgänger—one who already had a tarnished cinematic legacy, being the worst part of Sam Raimi’s misbegotten Spider-Man 3—that couldn’t even acknowledge the existence of Spider-Man. By all rights, Venom should’ve been a tangled mess of bad CGI and uncatchy catchphrases and opaquely incoherent intellectual-property management. And it is a mess. But it’s also a generally entertaining mess, thanks largely to Tom Hardy’s gonzo what-the-fuck-I’m-going-for-it performance and the movie’s sense of its own batshit insanity.
Speaking of messes: Deadpool 2 leaves plenty of them, spattering more guts on more windshields than even its predecessor had managed. But just like the original, Deadpool 2 is commendably single-minded in its pursuit of gross-out meta-comedy. If anything, it has even more fun fileting the conventions of the superhero movie. Consider: Ryan Reynolds making fun of Josh Brolin by calling him Thanos just a few weeks after Brolin really had played Thanos in Infinity War. Or the movie introducing a whole new sequel-ready super-team and then immediately, brutally killing almost all of them. Deadpool 2 is a stupid movie utterly jammed with obvious jokes. I like it.
It’s not a Marvel movie, but Incredibles 2 proved once again that Pixar can make a better Fantastic Four movie than any of the actual Fantastic Four custodians ever managed. Incredibles 2 is quietly a huge success, making more money than any non-Black Panther, non-Infinity War movie of 2018. It has better action scenes than most action movies, better comedy beats than most comedies, and more general familial warmth than most family movies, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it also has a lot of fun building out its whole comic book-esque universe. The actual plot is never anything more than generically effective, but little moments like the raccoon fight are utterly transcendent.
While we’re on kids’ cartoons, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is as self-aware as Deadpool 2—and just as quick with Green Lantern jokes, too. The movie extends the antic stoner charm of its TV series, and it’s a movie about what it takes for a superhero to get a movie, which adds a few layers of ridiculousness to an already-ridiculous project. There’s also a part where the heroes, in a hit-and-run accident, kill a keytar-playing tiger that’s voiced by Michael Bolton.
And the DC Extended Universe lived to fight another day. Aquaman, which looked like a terrible idea on paper, turned out to be a massive success and also an absurd, borderline-psychedelic good time at the movies. Clearly, director James Wan realized that he was making a movie about an arrogant, ultra-buff undersea king and that he should just go all the way ridiculous. I’m still vaguely stunned that Wan convened a cast full of heavyweights—Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson—and that none of them took themselves the tiniest bit seriously. Jason Momoa, a man who clearly enjoys his own sexy lunacy, is the absolute right person to hold all this together. By the time an army of giant crabs shows up, we have entered some beautiful nether-realm. Julie Andrews voices a giant sea monster! It’s great! I was high for this, and that was the right way to be.
Next time: That’s it! We’re all caught up now! As with A History Of Violence, my column about the history of action movies, we will check back in with Age Of Heroes again at the end of the year.
But two weeks from now, I’m launching a new column, in which I’ll go through the highest-grossing movie of every year, tracing the evolution of blockbuster-level film and watching popular tastes—and Hollywood’s ideas about how to serve those popular tastes—change from decade to decade. For no particular reason, we’re kicking things off with 1960, which means the first entry will be on Stanley Kubrick’s gladiator-rebellion epic Spartacus.