If you suffer from the condition known as Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, as I often do, you might be hesitant to see the latest Marvel movie, Black Panther. There’s no reason to be hesitant. In fact, Black Panther works as an antidote to the feeling that you’ve grown tired of just about anything based on a comic book or that is incorporated into Marvel’s sprawling, at times unwieldy, Cinematic Universe. Black Panther might just be the best Marvel movie yet.
The reason is twofold. The first is that it does things we’ve never seen before in the Marvel movie world. This is the 18th entry in the MCU, but it is the first to feature a predominantly black cast. It also tackles important social and racial issues like economic inequality and the struggle of black people to free themselves from centuries of oppression. To use a term popularized in activist circles: this is the first woke Marvel movie. That is as culturally important as it is innovative.
The other reason Black Panther fights Superhero Fatigue Syndrome is the more surprising one. Director and writer Ryan Coogler, who penned the script with Joe Robert Cole, makes every obligatory element of his superhero tale – this is a Marvel movie, after all – fresh and new. Black Panther is an origin story, yet Coogler and Cole transcend the tropes we’ve grown accustomed to over dozens of such stories. Coogler is also required to dovetail the events of past Marvel movies into his own entry, as well as hint at possible future ties to movies yet to come. He does so artfully and is able to avoid getting bogged down in these details before returning to his own story.
In Captain America: Civil War we were introduced to Prince T’Challa, aka Black Panther. In that movie, his father, King T’Chaka, is assassinated, which forces the young prince to pick a side in the conflict that tears the Avengers team apart. Black Panther is the story of T’Challa inheriting the throne of his country, Wakanda, in the wake of his father’s murder. He must also deal with the long festering consequences of actions that T’Chaka took decades ago.
The two main thematic elements that are central to Black Panther are as old as storytelling itself. How a leader chooses to use his or her power and familial betrayal were preoccupations of Greek playwrights. Coogler uses his talent and imagination to make them seem as new as the sophisticated visual effects that permeate his movie.
T’Challa must decide how he will use his own power almost immediately upon assuming the throne. An old nemesis, Ulysses Klaue, who stole a large amount of vibranium – the alien metal that gives the nation of Wakanda its secret high-tech advances – has surfaced in South Korea. He’s looking to sell an ancient Wakandan artifact on the black market, and T’Challa and his sister, Shuri, see this as an opportunity to bring him to justice. The attempted capture doesn’t go as planned, but we learn more about an associate of Klaue’s, a man named Erik. This mysterious man has his own agenda both for the stolen vibranium and for challenging T’Challa’s power.
Erik knows more than an outsider should about Wakanda’s hidden history. The nation presents itself to the world as being a humble agrarian society, but just below the surface is a country more technologically cutting-edge than anything dreamt of in Silicon Valley. In a dazzling opening sequence, we get the story of a giant meteor crashing to earth in Africa millions of years ago. The meteor is made of vibranium, which helped Wakanda’s ancestors build a thriving civilization.
There was a power struggle between the five original tribes who discovered the meteor. It’s a power struggle that T’Challa must still deal with in the present. T’Challa sees things the way his father did. The people of Wakanda must protect their secret at all costs, because to do otherwise would invite attention from the rest of the world that could end in disaster. Erik has decided it’s time Wakanda use their secret strength to help marginalized black people all over the world rise up against their oppressors. There are those in T’Challa’s inner circle who are sympathetic to Erik’s argument. The power struggle that the movie sets up between Erik and T’Challa, like that between the five tribes in the opening sequence, is Shakespearean in its intensity.
As dour as all that sounds, Coogler is talented enough of a filmmaker to bring plenty of fun and action to his superhero blockbuster. He’s said in interviews that he was inspired by crime dramas of the 1970s, particularly The Godfather, as well as the James Bond series, and he wanted to incorporate both elements into Black Panther. We get both a Bond-like character and most of the movie’s fun with Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, who designs new technology for all of Wakanda. She serves as T’Challa’s own Q, the British R&D officer who supplies Bond with all of his spy tech.
It was an absolute delight to realize that Coogler wouldn’t only give us the Bond toys, but that he’d plunk us right down into the middle of Black Panther’s own Bond-style action set-piece. Coogler’s kinetic camera work during the sequence is fantastic. It comes at about 1/3rd of the way in, at an underground South Korean casino where Klaue plans to sell his stolen artifact. Our hero devises a plan to apprehend Klaue, and he brings his most trusted fellow fighters to help him. One is Okoye, the head of an all-female special forces unit in Wakanda. The other is Nakia, a Wakandan spy who has a romantic history with T’Challa.
These two women represent another part of the progressive, socially conscious film that Coogler masterfully orchestrated. In this world, there is no need for characters to make asides about how the women are as strong as the men. They just are. Okoye and her elite force rightfully receive the respect of anyone who knows about their skill in combat. These righteous, powerful, courageous women will inspire multitudes of young girls, black or otherwise.
We should never forget that a script needs skilled actors to bring the words on the page to vibrant life. Black Panther is overflowing with a roster of talented performers who make the movie both fun and touching. This is a who’s who of black cinema. Among the cast are Sterling K. Brown, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker. If any of those names are unfamiliar to you now, they won’t be for much longer.
Chadwick Boseman brings a playfulness to the role of T’Challa, but is just as effective in the more serious moments. Michael B. Jordan is splendid as Erik, the enigmatic challenger to T’Challa’s power. In a lesser movie, Erik would have been the ultimate villain of the story. The way Coogler wrote it, though, and the way Jordan plays it, we can’t help but find more than a little sympathy for Erik. The real villain is white supremacy, and, to the horror of T’Challa and his allies, that’s something Erik will do almost anything to defeat.
There was a ton of pressure placed on Ryan Coogler’s shoulders to deliver with Black Panther. This is the first Marvel movie with a majority black cast and a black director at the helm. He does not disappoint. His stylistic choices are thrilling, his story is complex and moving, and the spectacle of it all begs for repeat viewings. I can think of only one artistic choice with which I can quibble. When the balance of power has tipped in Erik’s direction, Coogler begins a sequence with the camera turned upside down. It slowly rotates as it moves deeper into the action. There’s no doubt that the camera move is striking. This visual representation of our heroes’ world being turned upside down is a bit on the nose, though. But, when everything else about a movie is as satisfying as Black Panther is, who can even be bothered to care?
Why it got 4 stars:
- Black Panther is exciting, action-packed, and beautifully photographed. The acting is superb, and the story is at times funny, tense, and moving. The more serious themes that the movie addresses are revelatory to see incorporated into a huge Hollywood blockbuster.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I learned a new term while doing research for my review. It's Afrofuturism, and you'll have to excuse me while I fall down a rabbit hole of it for the next few weeks.
- Who's up for a Ryan Coogler retrospective screening series at my house this weekend?
- I find that my plot synopses for superhero movies usually give me the most trouble. There is always just so much going on in each movie that it's hard to write a review without resorting to straight plot description to make clear what I'm talking about. That's the case with Black Panther, too. I feel like I synopsized more than I wanted too, and I still left a bunch out. I hope I made at least a few salient points in there somewhere.
- Martin McDonagh recently spoke out about the recent backlash to his film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In his comments, he defended his movie as being emotionally and thematically complex. He disparaged comic book movies by saying he was trying to do something deeper and more thoughtful than a Marvel movie. Wrong time to trot out that argument, dude. Wrong time.
- Whatever you do, don't fall for this. It's racist idiocy.
- Michael B. Jordan is whoa. I want to go river rafting in his abs.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I was on edge when a large group of college-aged frat looking dudes made loud, "witty" comments to each other and the screen both before and during the trailers. I was pleasantly surprised when they were silent throughout most of the movie. Maybe it's impossible to disrespect King T'Challa!
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- It's been over three years, and I'm finally reviewing my first foreign-language movie. This has been a big disappointment of mine. I would love to see, and review, more foreign films. I just need more time! Next week I'll be taking a look at A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean film that received an Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nomination.