FILM REVIEW: BLACK PANTHER, A Comic Book Movie With Complex Themes and Vibrant Characters
Wakanda has a new king and the Marvel Cinematic Universe may have a new ruler as well. The 18th film in the MCU’s bulging portfolio, Black Panther, hits theaters this weekend. And as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes the throne, a refreshing new style of deeper, more challenging superhero movie (augured by Fruitvale Station auteur Ryan Coogler) may be taking over the silver screen. Or so one hopes. While Black Panther does not completely shed the chains of story fatigue which bind it to its brethren, it does feature the most sterling cast the Marvel world has seen in a while, and a story that feels like it has the most at stake.
If you are alive and a human, you have partaken at some point or another in what Marvel CEO Kevin Feige has been serving up for ten years now. You thus may know that T’Challa is destined to become ruler of the hidden-in-plain-sight African nation after his father the King is murdered by arch-villains at a bombing in the United Nations in one of the many movie predecessors. But T’Challa’s moment at the spotlight of his own film is not without some competition.
Challengers come in many forms, including the clunky but necessary voice-over cut scenes that open most of a Marvel superhero’s first solo film, and the plotless exposition of the secondary characters needed to build to the central problems.
They contenders also come in the form of a bevy of characters, good and bad, vying for attention, the crown, and then some. There is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), an independent spirit and former qua-current love interest that wants to serve not just Wakanda, but the people of African descent suffering around the world. We meet Okoye, a superbly talented and perfectly cast Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead), who steals every scene she inhabits and who is a warrior loyal to the King, to a fault. There is a gaggle of secondary characters, including T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a character that evokes the resourceful inventor Q from the James Bonds films but with which 16 years old girls can identify, and W’Kabi and Suri (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Forest Whitaker), warrior and statesman of the secret nation.
But above all is the enigmatic Killmonger, a mysterious figure from Wakanda’s past played with gusto and infinite success by the formerly-good guy Michael B. Jordan (twice previously a Coogler collaborator). Killmonger is well-trained, as his name implies, to kill, and has grand and devious machinations of his own for our hero and his good realm.
The outline as laid out naturally evokes many of the superhero movies you have seen the world over, over the last decade. The hidden civilization reminds you of Wonder Woman, the nationalistic hero with internal family strife evokes Thor, the super-evolved technology of Wakanda (powered by a metal named vibranium) can be seen in Iron-Man or Captain America. The all-too-familiar elements of these movies returns, and quickly threaten Black Panther with tedium by the forty-minute mark.
But Marvel is Disney’s golden goose and nothing can be or was left to chance. Aided by Coogler’s meticulous directing and the outstanding work of its cast, not to mention a story that feels dangerous and threatening from the first scene, Black Panther rises above the conscriptions that whether fans like it or not innately drawn down this genre.
At the core of the movie is a simple but important conundrum, involving what role the most advanced civilization on Earth—immensely proud of its African-ness—should play in solving the broader plight of the Black man across the Globe. Coogler, of course, is a child of Oakland and a student of it. He telegraphs his own ambivalence and confusion regarding the film’s central problem when Killmonger proclaims himself a starry-eyed boy wondering the streets on the East Bay.
The Wakandans, you see, believe that the problems of other descendants of African tribes at the hands of “colonizers” are not their own. They have lived in peace and prosperity and look out for one another alone. On its face, it is an odd position for the good guys of a film that otherwise proudly proclaims and exults Africa—in its dress, its tones, its tribal-like score—to have. In any case, as one may expect, others have different ideas and civil strife soon erupts to settle the score.
Black Panther is a smart film because it is well-aware of its role at the center of Hollywood history—the first superhero movie with a black protagonist and nearly-all-black cast. With great power comes great responsibility, goes the Marvel Spidey cliché, and it is especially true here. But Black Panther meets these challenges and then some, grappling with the tensions between and about the black community more broadly without ever devolving completely away from its comic book core.
While many movies flounder precisely because they betray their own genre or try to navigate in different waters, Black Panther succeeds because it does so, because it manages to be keep one foot in each side of the divide, carefully but precisely. Two “battles to the death” sequences in particular are exhilarating and breathtaking for their effects-laden contours, while symbolically pitting the two philosophies at the movie’s center.
When all the scenes were assembled and all the lines were cut, Coogler, Feige, and pals, could have chosen a safer movie. It is not that the script is not at times infected with superhero specials like “I’m going as fast as I can!!” or “I scoff at tradition.” It is that its many virtues more than opaque its little nicks. The mood of the entire film is different than all its predecessors because it pushes the envelope—just enough if you want, but unquestionably.
It is therefore aphorism to proclaim the movie “the best of the Marvel Universe.” How can one compare it to a fluffy comedy that does not take itself seriously like Thor, or to slapstick irreverent films like Guardians of the Galaxy, or to teen-angst movies like Spider-Man? For all the similarities Black Panther shares with its genre, it is remarkably and refreshingly different.
It is not just that it embraces its racial self. It never neglects other modern concerns as well: but for Jordan’s delicious and sympathetic villain, every single female character in the film is given a chance to, and does outshine, their male counterparts. To top it off, Black Panther sprinkles in political tidbits, about immigrants, about worldwide cooperation, about the bridges of wise men and the barriers of fools. It gets away with all of it, because it has the talent to back it all up with good filmmaking.
One can ask for little more from a comic book movie than you will get from what one hopes will be the first in other entries for this exciting new character. We will always be able to recite the contours of these tales in our theater-induced sleep, but at least Black Panther offers a tense plot, devastating at times, and more real—both in the cinematic but also the social-setting senses—than its predecessors. What but that we could always get acting as dedicated, and directing as inspired. Other superhero movies take their audiences and their welcome receptions for granted. The cast and filmmakers of this movie knew their precious responsibilities and clearly had something to prove. And prove it they did.