How has Marvel turned out hit after hit? Some may point to the leading men and women they’ve chosen to be the faces of their ever expanding world. Many will say they’ve picked some of Marvel Comics most interesting and complex characters. I say none of the above is the true reason. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be placed upon the shoulders of its storytellers. Now in its tenth year, the MCU has given free reign to directors and writers who can balance all the action and infinity stones running amok, with actual care being placed in its characters. Enter Ryan Coogler and Marvel’s most independent movie yet, Black Panther.
We have already been introduced to the film’s title character. But, Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) show us that King T’Challa may be the franchise’s deepest and most complex character to date. It is the emphasis these films have chosen to take as a whole. The franchise’s willingness to give diverse directors their chance has paid off tremendously. Even though the MCU has it’s preset structure, its movies are able to stand alone. MCU fans have spoke ad nauseam about the films each falling into various sub-genres, myself included. So what is Black Panther? One could interpret it as a family drama. I think it falls under another category. In a sense, Black Panther is a spin on a coming of age story.
The movie begins with a beautifully animated sequence telling us the story of Wakanda, the home of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Isolated from the outside world, at a glance, Wakanda is a poor farming country in Africa. Below the surface, because of its rich Vibranium (think Captain America’s shield) supply, it has become the most technologically advanced nation in the world. At the center of it, Wakanda’s royal family. The new king, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) welcome him home to be king. It is the women in his life that provide the stability. Included in that are his love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his ever-loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira). There are some truly bad ass women in this film, the aforementioned included.
Wakanda has always been hidden from the outside world. Coogler builds the mythology and establishes that this nation’s duty is to its people. That is something engrained in T’Challa from his father, the former king T’Chaka. We see T’Challa echoing the former king’s sentiments, even though his nation could help billons of people world wide. Though peaceful, it is a country that has lived in fear; fear of having everything taken from them in all out war should the world find out about the riches that lie beneath the surface. We don’t need to be spoon fed their motivation and Coogler lets his talented cast do the work for him. We understand why this nation does what it does.
In its own unique way, we understand the other side as well. For a nation prided on its compassion for people, why haven’t they helped the world? This thought is perfectly personified within the films villain, frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger. Aside from his amazing name, Killmonger has a bone to pick with the throne of Wakanda due to his richly developed past. Coogler flawlessly executes the contrast of his villains brute strength and solid motivations to create one of Marvel’s best villains yet.
Everything in Black Panther is so wonderfully explored and the mythos of this world is established in such a brilliant way that you buy into everything. Grounded in its sense of place, Black Panther‘s themes are woven seamlessly into the world Coogler has created. His cast is pitch perfect and his script is tight and laser focused. The sheer attention to detail put into this film is astounding. Much like Marvel films of the past, it is crafted with its own wholly unique setting and style.
Black Panther isn’t without its flaws. Like any superhero film, it suffers from the tried and true three act structure that ultimately plays into a sometimes underwhelming final confrontation between the Black Panther and Killmonger. Though it never loses the overall emotional stakes the film has set up, the final fight between the two of them seems to wrap up in a timely fashion. Though, the moments that follow do bring that level of gravitas back to the film. Even with some of the films more stunning visuals, it does falter with some sloppy CGI work at points. Despite that, the film is paced very well. Even when some of the fight scenes get a bit overextended, it is never boring.
What is perhaps most impressive about Black Panther, is that it feels unique in its substantiveness. The film heavily plays into the spirituality of African culture. That spirituality is the backbone of T’Challa. The heavy importance placed on ancestral approval is a theme in the film, but it is up to him to decide what kind of king he wants to be. When some revelations come forth, T’Challa has to decide his own path. Though that concept feels familiar, Coogler is able subvert the usual tropes that come along with self-discovery in film. In fact, Black Panther as a whole is transcendent of the genre of comic book adaptations. Also to its credit, it isn’t excessively tied in with the larger Marvel universe in play, ultimately proving, Coogler was able to tell his own story without reminding fans of Iron Man or Captain America.
The world of Black Panther and its characters feel lived in. That is what gives the film its authenticity. You don’t have to see the things Killmonger has done to know he is a major threat. The film doesn’t waste time over explaining the history of its characters. In its continuing trust of diverse auteurs and favoring of storytelling over blockbuster action, Marvel Studios has effectively created a new version of those blockbusters. It has the glossy action, but is eclipsed by the emotional heft of an indie drama. Black Panther is poised to be a cultural milestone. But overall, it is one of Marvel’s very best.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 134 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture)