The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps chugging along, as this weekend marks the series’ eighteenth entry: Black Panther. I could talk for hours about the history of the MCU, and how this movie follows up on Civil War while simultaneously setting up Infinity War, but for the purposes of this introduction, I’d like to remind everyone the significance of this film. Yes, there have been black superheroes before, and yes, there have been superhero movies directed by African-American’s before, but Black Panther is different. For what may be the first time in history, a major production company is giving a black director over two hundred million dollars to tell a story written by two black men set in Africa with an entirely black cast. This is a massive step forward, and luckily, the resulting film is pretty damn incredible.
Let’s start with the titular character of Black Panther, as Chadwick Boseman delivers one of the best performances this universe has ever seen. Boseman was great at T’Challa in Civil War, but he’s staggeringly good in his first solo outing. He brings a weight to this character that we haven’t seen in the MCU. Which makes sense, as his character is drastically different than any of the others we’ve seen before. T’Challa is a king, he’s the ruler of a people. He may be super powered, but I wouldn’t call him a superhero like I would Iron Man or Captain America. He has a super suit, but it’s a vital part of his kingship. Boseman is able to fully explore the weight and internal conflict a king feels, and he’s engaging the entire time he’s on screen.
He’s not alone, as Black Panther is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, mostly comprised of women of color. Martin Freeman is great and all, but this movie belongs to the ladies. Lupita Nyongo plays T’Challa’s former flame Nakia, Danai Gurira is badass as the General of the Dora Malaje, Okoye, and Letitia Wright steals every scene she’s in as Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, and the smartest person in the world. These characters play an integral part of T’Challa’s journey, and Director Ryan Coogler gives them as much time as they need to step out of the “sidekick” cliché. The idea of spinning off supporting characters into their own leading role is joked about a lot after every superhero movie/tv show release, but I would be first in line for a “Women of Wakanda” movie.
Rounding out the fabulous cast is Michael B. Jordan as the villainous Eric “Killmonger.” Other than Loki, Marvel has always had a problem with it’s villains. While things have been a bit better recently with The Vulture and Hela, they’re often just bland, power hungry guys who yell. Early buzz pegged Killmonger as a villain that was finally on par with Loki, someone that could finally be feared and provide a great foil to our protagonist. He’s not just on par with Loki, he’s better.
Jordan is excellent in this film. Not only are we given a thorough backstory to set up why he is on his mission, but it’s one that makes him a sympathetic character. He’s a lot like Magneto in the X-Men franchise. He’s a character that want’s to rid the world of injustice, he’s just going about it the wrong way. Yes, he’s radicalized and his methods are wrong, but his mission is rooted in a desire for righteousness. Jordan doesn’t play into the typical mustache twirling pitfall (he lets Andy Serkis do that in spectacular fashion), and he never goes full megalomaniac. He’s a talented enough actor to always keep his motivation, his pain, front and center. You may not agree, but you always understand why Killmonger acts the way he does.
So you’ve got a great cast, now it’s time to throw them all together and let conflict happen. And when things boil over, it results in some truly spectacular action sequences. There isn’t as much action as you’d think from a Marvel movie, but when punches are thrown, they hit hard. The fight choreography is clear and exciting, but what I enjoy most about these scenes was how engaging they are. Every fight is properly set up, and you understand why the opposing forces resort to fighting. By doing this, action becomes an extension of character, not just something cool to look at. Also, word to the wise, to not mess with Danai Gurira, because she will kick your ass and look good doing it.
Not only is the action exciting, it’s incredibly well shot. Coogler re-teams with Fruitvale Station cinematographer, Rachel Morrison. Morrison was Oscar nominated for her work in Mudbound, and she brings that same talent to the world of Wakanda, delivering a visual aesthetic we don’t often see in superhero films. Usually, a cinematographers “style” is replaced for a uniform look that keeps the focus on the heroes and the action. Here, Morrison manages to keep everything clear and in frame, while also adding distinct flair and a personal touch. I’m a massive cinematography nerd, and even though some of the visual effects are sub-par, this might be one of the best shot Marvel movies too date.
It’s so refreshing to be able to say that, as usually one of my complaints about every Marvel movie are it’s bland cinematography. But with Black Panther, things look to be changing. It started with Thor Ragnarok, and it seems like Marvel is loosing their grip on the reigns and letting directors tell the stories they want too. Ryan Coogler is all over this film, and if you’ve seen any of his previous works, you’ll recognize his fingerprints. If Marvel keeps putting A-list talent in the directors chair and letting them have at it, I’m all for it.
Coogler’s directorial debut was Fruitvale Station, a film about the real life events of Oscar Grant, a young black man (played by Michael B. Jordan) who was shot and killed by the police on New Years Eve. It’s a heartbreaking story about police brutality, and it pulls no punches in terms of race and mistreatment of minorities. I am shocked, and incredibly grateful, to say that Black Panther has the same message at heart.
Race is front and center of Black Panther. Ryan Coogler recently stated in an interview that before he could properly make this film, he needed to go to Africa and let that experience guide him as he directed. His approach certainly works, as so much of this film is a beautiful celebration of African tradition. While Wakanda may by a fictional country, the spirit and the culture is real. Coogler shines a light on a people that are underrepresented in film, and he clearly loves doing so.
But it’s not all celebration, as this film has a biting social message at it’s core. Killmoger is motivated by the injustice towards black people around the world. Much like the films director, Killmonger grew up in the projects in Oakland, California. Unlike the director, he was radicalized there, and wants to use Wakandan technology to overthrow the world order and liberate his people. If you want to go see Black Panther for it’s fun action, that’s fine, but at it’s heart, this is a movie built around social commentary. Hell, it ends with the phrase “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” I wonder who on earth that could be in reference too.
Black Panther was not only a delightful superhero spectacle, but it also had more heart and social commentary than almost any big budget blockbuster of recent memory. The supporting cast was incredible, the villain was compelling, and it delivered an insightful look at what it takes to be a king. After just one viewing, I already know this will be a modern classic. If for nothing else, it gave us these photos, and I can think of nothing more important for a film to do.
Rating: 4.8 — Phenomenal