Simply put, BLACK PANTHER is a thrilling fantasy-adventure with a vivid new palette, a superhero film that manages to feel like it packs in about eight different types of modern blockbusters into one big sprawling introduction to a world that is so big that it feels like the screen’s barely able to hold it all.
The conversation about the “best” Marvel movie is a silly one. At this point, they’ve gotten good enough at hitting a consistent level of quality, and now it’s about what flavor you prefer. If you like crazy outer-space comedy shot through with dysfunctional family issues, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies have you covered. The Thor films seem to have finally figured out the right tone for mythology wrapped in science-fiction. The most recent Spider-Man film tried something novel by making him an actual high school student in a John Hughes film. At this point, the superpowers are the least interesting things about these movies, which is exactly why they work.
There’s no single model for what director Ryan Coogler’s up to here, but it’s clear that he has looked at all sorts of popular filmmaking and then, instead of simply imitating it, he’s thought about how to subvert or reinvent the various touchstones and archetypes he’s playing with in a way that not only ends up specific to the character of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), but that also serves as an important demonstration of what happens when you give the same toys to filmmakers with radically different cultural perspective. Black Panther is joyously black, celebrating it in the choices that are made regarding costumes, production design, story, and character. This is not just the same old thing dressed up in a new way, and that’s because Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole have used these parts to make their own thing, their way. This is part spy movie, part family drama, part ethical debate about the responsibilities we have to each other as a global community. It is also a preposterously jam-packed ensemble in which we’re introduced to a dense supporting cast of characters all worth further exploration.
Ryan Coogler’s films so far (Fruitvale Station and Creed) are about characters who want to be seen, who want to matter as much as anyone else, and Black Panther leans into that theme as well, giving Michael B. Jordan one of the best blockbuster villain roles in a while. Erik Killmonger may be a standard-issue on-the-nose comic book bad guy name, but he’s written the way most great villains are: he’s right. What he wants and why he wants it… he’s got a case, and he makes it pretty persuasively. His anger is a righteous anger, coming from a place of having been erased from his country’s history and his family’s history, and he wants not only to be seen and acknowledged now, but also to lead the way for real change around the world. While Boseman is the lead here, and we’ll definitely talk more about him, Jordan is the one who gives this film its pulse, and it is wild and dangerous as a result.
After all, Wakanda is this remarkable nation, this fairy tale that has been kept a secret from a world, an African nation that was struck in the distant past by a meteor made of vibranium, a metal that gives humans superpowers, that gives technology a boost past anything from Earth, and that transforms the very land around it. Their nation realized the power of this custodial role they’ve been given, and they have chosen to hide this technology and these advances from the outside world. “But why?” is the question that never quite gets asked here, but it gets answered loudly by everything we see. After all, western culture’s history is written in the blood of colonialism. You can list the advances that have spread around the world as Europe and America built empires, but you can’t deny that empire building is done by force, and that progress is frequently delivered by trauma. Wakanda, because it took itself off of the world table, has never had any outside influence. Its architecture, its art, its technology, and its culture have all been allowed to flourish at a remove, and that game of “what if?” that the film plays is one of its most tactile and ongoing pleasures. There’s always something new to look at, some corner of things to explore, and this feels like career-defining work from production designer Hannah Beachler, the art direction team led by Alan Hook, set decorator Jay Hart, and especially the great Ruth E. Carter, who has dressed Wakanda with a rich and playful sense of style. Jordan’s character looks at Wakanda, looks at the power of the weapons they have built for their own defense and the strength of the people they have built in a nation where no one has ever had to live in chains, and he wants that for the world. He wants to transform the world into Wakanda for all people of color. He doesn’t want to see anyone who looks like him held down or hurt again, one of the most relatable, basic, primary drives for a character. There is something at the heart of his plan that makes a desperate, broken sense.
The biggest obstacle to his plan is, of course, that he is not the king of Wakanda. T’Challa is, and the first hour of the film is really about the transition that he makes from the son of T’Chaka (John Kani), the fallen king, to the man who must now wear the crown. We saw the beginning of that in Captain America: Civil War, but this film does a more than adequate job of standing alone, offering up all the information any viewer would need. We see the way the traditions of Wakanda work, and we see how important ritual is to their culture. We also see, though, the way progress and the past rub up against each other and the stresses caused by that friction, and we see how T’Challa has to find his own path as a leader between what has been and what could be. Now that he’s been out in the world, now that he’s been forced to look at Wakanda’s place in the world, he’s feeling some of those same things that Killmonger is feeling. It’s smart writing, and it gives him way more to do here than just chase and fight bad guys. He’s juggling relationships with his family and with the people in his life, and Coogler makes each of those relationships feel important. There’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who is clearly as drawn to T’Challa as he is to her, but whose work as a spy outside of Wakanda’s borders keeps her perpetually just out of reach. She is the one who really starts to push T’Challa to question the decision to continually keep their nation in the shadows, hiding what makes them special, keeping their advances from people who might benefit from them. There’s Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the warriors who protect the Wakandan throne. She is pretty much tradition personified, rigid and impossible to corrupt. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is one of T’Challa’s closest friends, but his desire to find and punish Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) for his role in his father’s death has started to curdle into something ugly. There’s M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of a mountain region who challenges T’Challa for the throne, his grievance at being marginalized within his country a seemingly valid one. All of them are given room to breathe as characters, written beyond a few cursory surface details. This is what blockbusters should try and do. Why shouldn’t every single corner of your world feel this fully fleshed-out?
One of my favorite choices in the film is the way Shuri (Letitia Wright) is positioned to be the Q to her brother’s James Bond. She’s a princess, but she is a scientist pushing her country’s entire technological foundation forward by leaps and bounds. She’s Tony Stark-level smart, which is Marvel shorthand for saying “super-genius,” and she deserves to become a major player in the larger MCU. Like Okoye and Nakia, she is written as strong and capable and, most importantly, human as any of the other characters in the film, and that’s the big surprise of Black Panther. We knew the film was going to offer a very strong black point-of-view, but I had no idea it was going to be so ferociously feminine as well. It is to the film’s enormous benefit, too, because these characters jump off the screen. They are new. They may be, in many cases, riffs off of existing types, but this film doesn’t really exist before now. There’s not one clear thing you can point at and say, “You know… it’s like that.” The third act does indeed feature a big battle, and there are several stages of conflict going on involving glowing doodads, something I have lamented repeatedly, but it is to Coogler’s enormous credit that you can point at how well he makes you care about the various stages of conflict, how he’s made sure you’re not just rooting for and against characters in simple ways, and how he’s made the stakes both personal and universal. There’s no easy answer for how this should end, and that’s what keeps an audience genuinely invested.
Also, there are battle rhinos, and that is badass.
When 42 came out, it was a big deal in the McWeeny house. My oldest son was in Little League at the time, and when we walked out of the movie, he told me that he thought Jackie Robinson was the greatest and that he wanted to wear his number. Toshi watched the film repeatedly, and he really fell in love with Chadwick Boseman. Because he watched the film so many times, so did I, and while I liked Boseman a lot on first viewing, I really came to appreciate what a nuanced and subtle actor he is. He plays things close, which is one of the lovely things about working on film. That’s been true as he’s continued working, and it’s that special quality he brings to his work as T’Challa. Much of his journey in this film is internal, and that’s not always the easiest thing to sell. Part of the process of becoming the king of Wakanda and wearing the mantle of the Black Panther is participating in a ritual that takes you to the afterlife to see your ancestors. What Boseman does so well after that sequence allows you to see the way the knowledge he gained in that scene continues to make its way through him, like slow-moving shrapnel. T’Challa never has a moment in this film to simply sit and get centered. He is constantly challenged, constantly pushed, constantly having to defend not only his own life and the lives of his loved ones and his people, but also the very idea of what Wakanda is and who he is and what the Black Panther stands for. Playing that kind of strength and playing someone who can change while still holding onto some core idea of who he is seems like a pretty big challenge, and Boseman not only does it, but he has fun doing it. He wears this character like he was born to it, and when the MCU works best, it works because it finds the perfect combination of character, actor, and creative team.
That’s definitely the case here, and if Boseman continues making these films, here’s hoping he’s not the only one who comes back. Wakanda is a community now, with Ryan Coogler leading an army who came together to make something special, and I suspect this is only our first visit to this remarkable place.
Running time: 134 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic