Over the last several months my thoughts on “Black Panther” went from cautious to optimistic; lukewarm to generally excited. What nearly dampened my enthusiasm was the rabid, unbridled praise from early viewers who were quick to throw out words like “masterpiece” and “the greatest superhero movie ever made”. My personal favorite may be that the film will be “taught in school” and “debated among intellectuals”. Director Ryan Coogler has even been heralded as “the new Spielberg”.
All of this does more to fuel my skepticism than stoke excitement. After all, there are some legitimate reasons to want a film like this to succeed and it seems many are doing their part to ensure the hype is through the roof. But here’s the thing, I don’t need prodding in order to find reasons to be excited: Coogler is a fantastic young filmmaker. I absolutely love the cast. I couldn’t wait to see how cinematographer Rachel Morrison follows up her Oscar-nominated work in “Mudbound”. Ultimately all of the fawning puts undeserved pressure on “Black Panther” which when brought down to reality is an extraordinary genre picture that stands strong on its own merits.
With two feature films under his belt (the good “Fruitvale Station” and the even better “Creed”) Ryan Coogler has shown himself to be an astute director with a fresh cinematic perspective. He brings all of that to “Black Panther” which he also co-writes with Joe Robert Cole. His venture into the superhero genre feels epic in scale yet maintains an intimacy that some of Marvel’s other efforts lack. It’s a careful balance that helps the movie excel in a variety of ways.
The wonderfully cast Chadwick Boseman returns as T’Challa, a character first introduced in Marvel’s “Civil War”. In that film his father, the king of the small African country of Wakanda, is killed during a terrorist attack in Vienna. “Black Panther” begins shortly after with T’Challa set to take his father’s place as Wakanda’s king as well as its super-powered protector. He’s quickly faced with a host of challenges both from inside and outside of his nation’s secret borders.
Much like “Wonder Woman” a year ago, “Black Panther” reinvigorates its genre in a number of ways and the two movies share similarities. In that film it was the mythical island of Themyscira that remained hidden and untainted by the outside world. Here it’s Wakanda posing as a poor third-world country but actually rich in energy and technology thanks to a powerful alien mineral known as vibranium which they keep hidden from the rest of the world. Isolationism is one of the many subjects explored as the leaders of Wakanda’s five tribes debate their traditional stance versus a more open-world position. There is no easy answer as I’m sure the inevitable sequels will prove.
While T’Challa is the centerpiece you could say it’s the supporting characters who make this such a rich and full experience. First you have his allies, a delightful collection of powerful and personality-rich women. Lupita Nyong’o is fabulous as T’Challa’s principled ex-flame and Wakandan secret agent Nakia who’s guided by conscience over crown. Danai Gurira is lights-out as Okoye, leader of the female special forces unit known as the Dora Milaje. Letitia Wright plays T’Challa’s live-wire younger sister Shuri. She’s to her brother what Q is to James Bond. We also get great names like Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker.
In the bad guys corner is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who knows Wakanda’s big secret and has a sweet tooth for vibranium. There’s something I love about Serkis’ performance that I can’t quite put my finger on. Klaue is as bizarre as he is brutal and you can tell Serkis is having a ball portraying him.
But the name most people will be talking about (and rightly so) is Michael B. Jordan who plays Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. His story is setup in the film’s prologue and comes more into focus as the movie moves forward. As his name denotes, Killmonger has been raised in violence and therefore acts through violence. He is an essential piece to Coogler’s story and offers more complexity than the bulk of Marvel villains we’ve seen. In many ways Killmonger is the product of choices made by others and he is driven by a whirlwind of internal chaos, much of it aimed at Wakanda.
Jordan is an absolute scene-stealer and you get the sense Coogler wants him to be. The two have collaborated on both “Fruitvale” and “Creed” and they definitely operate on the same wavelength. Here the charismatic Jordan brings a swagger to Killmonger as well as a palpable rage which fuels his every move. Ultimately he is a misguided soul yet at the same time a sympathetic one with much more driving him than the generic quest for ‘world domination’.
In each of his films Coogler has shown a big interest in his characters and it’s no different here. He also gives a lot of attention to visualizing Wakanda as a majestic place full of cultural beauty and aesthetic diversity. Production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter make the most with their chunk of the film’s $200 million budget. And it’s all captured through Rachel Morrison’s vibrant camera.
As much as I loved “Black Panther” it isn’t without a few nagging issues. There are plenty of action scenes, several of which are fabulous. But the ending is the only time the movie falls in with the traditional Marvel formula – a massive final battle with a ton of CGI. While some of it is exhilarating, the effects aren’t what you would expect and sometimes come off as a little cartoony. There are also a handful of unanswered questions and a couple of relationships that felt underserved. Minor quibbles in light of what all the movie manages to do right.
“Black Panther” is indeed a socially relevant movie as many have said and it is so without depending on obvious narrative crutches or hammer-to-the-head sermonizing. It’s socially relevant because it simply is. That may sound a bit tripe, but it’s the best way to state it. The film’s setting, its characters, its conflicts all feel natural and authentic within the world Coogler and company create. The story’s message and underlying themes are rooted in conviction and earnestly explored within the flow of the narrative itself. Really good filmmakers can do that.
In the end “Black Panther” is a rousing success not because critics propped it up or commentators screamed its importance. It’s a success because of the people who made it – immense talents in front and behind the camera who are hopefully opening the eyes of moviegoers and moviemakers. But “Black Panther” isn’t just a cultural statement. It’s a terrific film that energizes a genre as it has a community. Not many movies can say that.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS