Not everything about the film works across the board but a huge amount of it does – and does so wonderfully.
It may utilize the mix of action and humor that now defines the Marvel movie formula, but Black Panther refuses to blend into the crowd of superhero films. It stands out boldly, in part by opening up a beautiful new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also with its topical themes. Not everything works across the board, but when it sets this fantastic cast of relatable heroes on one side of real-world ideological debates and the MCU’s most compelling and dimensional antagonist in years on the other, a huge amount of it works wonderfully.
For a film that touches on so many very real and very serious topics, you might expect Black Panther to be an entirely solemn affair. Some parts are, but it’s also an entertaining adventure film about an action hero with awesome gadgets and a super-suit, a fun film with many laugh-out loud moments, and a gorgeous movie with a distinctive visual style that can’t be mistaken for any other big-budget movie. It’s a testament to director/co-writer Ryan Coogler’s skill that he juggles all these elements without his film ending up tonally inconsistent. As he did with his previous film, 2015’s Creed, Coogler has made a larger-than-life crowd-pleaser that works so well because he keeps it grounded in what is very human, emotional, and relatable.
What’s perhaps most unusual about the character of Black Panther, also known as King T’Challa of Wakanda (played by the charismatic Chadwick Boseman, reprising the role introduced in Captain America: Civil War) is that he’s a superhero largely looking to maintain the status quo throughout a good chunk of his first solo film. That’s a rare thing in a genre where an objective-driven hero’s quest is usually the fundamental part of its story. Black Panther is more about T’Challa learning a valuable life lesson than it is about him attaining some important item or leveling up as a superhero – although assuring his place as king and as the Black Panther is certainly hugely important here.
It’s not like he hadn’t ever donned the costume before or had never served in a leadership capacity. No, T’Challa’s journey here, and the larger theme at play in the film, is a tried-and-true Marvel chestnut: With great power comes great responsibility, whether that power and responsibility is wielded by an individual or a collective force (in this case, a nation). If you have the means to help and protect others, do you have a moral obligation to do so?
So much of that theme is brought to light here – and with such power and resonance – thanks to Michael B. Jordan’s striking turn as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. Like the X-Men’s archenemy Magneto, Killmonger is the more violent, extremist mirror image of the superhero protagonist. If T’Challa is about maintaining traditions and keeping Wakanda’s advanced technology and Vibranium safely hidden from the outside world, then Killmonger is driven by a deep-set need to right wrongs and exact justice – which are usually the motives associated with the superhero, not the supervillain. And that’s what makes him so compelling and, ultimately, such a deeply moving character. The best villains are said to be the ones the audience can sympathize with, and Killmonger certainly fits that bill. He is the strongest villain (figuratively speaking) the MCU has produced since Loki.
Killmonger’s arc helps illuminate the larger, real-world issues Black Panther explores. A variety of topics – isolationism, the haves and have nots, social justice, and the legacy of colonialism – all add up to make this the most timely, political, and important Marvel movie to date. Black Panther sets the stage for a bigger, more important conversation coming out of the theater beyond just what it might set up for some future MCU installment.
Black Panther does have some pacing problems, with the film getting off to a rather slow start. It doesn’t really kick into high gear until T’Challa and Co. head to South Korea on a mission, and there are a few stretches later on that feel a bit dragged out. But, overall, once the film finds its footing Black Panther is both a fun ride and a deeply emotional journey.
Coogler has assembled an amazing cast, particularly its leading ladies. Letitia Wright steals every scene she’s in as T’Challa’s brilliant, exuberant sister Shuri. She’s not just a tech genius, she’s also very much a kid sister who can bust her brother’s chops or cut him down to size with a well-timed barb. Likewise, if you thought Danai Gurira kicked butt as Michonne on The Walking Dead, wait until you see her in action here as Okoye, the head of T’Challa’s royal guard, the Dora Milaje. Okoye’s adherence to traditional values, her loyalty to the throne, and her coolness under pressure make her a character I could not take my eyes off of when she was on screen. And Lupita Nyong’o brings Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who remains his supporter and friend, to life with grace and her own code of honor that lends her character an independence from T’Challa’s royal orbit. With all of that going on it’s disappointing that the beloved Angela Bassett, who plays T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, isn’t quite as well utilized as some of the other supporting cast members.
Of the other supporting players, Winston Duke stands out as the defiant, mighty M’Baku, while Get Out star and Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya has a small but important role here as W’Kabi, an old friend of T’Challa’s. Forest Whitaker can often seem on the verge of hamminess in his performances, but Coogler gets him to wisely underplay it here as elder statesman Zuri. One actor who does get to chew some scenery is Andy Serkis as the unhinged arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, who gets to rock a sonic blaster arm. Martin Freeman acquits himself fine as CIA Agent Everett Ross (reprising his role from Civil War) even though it’s debatable whether the inclusion of his character here was ultimately even necessary. (Also look for Sterling K. Brown in a small but very moving role — the details of which would be too spoilerish to get into.)
In terms of art and production design and costuming, Black Panther is both a visual feast and a cultural celebration that will, hopefully, be remembered come next awards season. The one aspect of the film’s aesthetic that isn’t as consistently excellent are its visual effects. The Wakandan tech is fun and cool, but the actual shots of Panther and Killmonger in action are sometimes way too cartoony, and the transition from tactile figures to their digital doubles can be jarring. It’s an issue I’ve also had in the past with Spider-Man, and it’s one I’d love to see smoothed out in future films – hopefully before the MCU becomes increasingly fantastical with Avengers: Infinity War later this year.
As for Wakanda itself, it proves a sumptuous and engrossing example of cinematic world-building. Coogler takes us through its diverse geographical regions, introduces its distinctive tribes, and establishes a realm that mixes futuristic technology with ancient traditions. As a place, Wakanda simply looks beautiful, a topographically diverse region whose human-made structures point to the future while also commemorating their past. In just a few sequences set here, Wakanda already seems like a more lived-in and indispensable part of the MCU — a place to become emotionally invested in — than Asgard ever quite did in Thor’s trilogy. I already can’t wait to see what’s in store for Wakanda next.