Here are some things I liked about Black Panther, the deservedly successful movie about T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), an African king who gets super-strength from a local herb and near-invulnerability from a suit of armor. Spoilers follow.
Production Design. Everything about Wakanda looks awesomely Afrofuturistic. There are obviously problems in this place, but one of the big things at stake in the film is whether utopia can still be utopia while building a bridge with the outside world. The production design sells that idea of vibrant harmony in ways that the dialogue just doesn’t have room to do. Meanwhile, Busan is a 1980s neon dreamscape: exactly the kind of place where a breathless chase with a remote-controlled car and a spear-wielding valkyrie would make total sense.
That Car Chase. Speaking of which, it’s one of the highlights of the many set pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let alone this film.
General Okoye. Can we just take a second to talk about what an incredible badass Danai Gurira gets to be in this movie? She does everything T’Challa does, except backwards and in high heels without superpowers and in an evening gown. More than that, Gurira instills a sense of hard-won righteousness in a character legitimately torn about her duty. Never once does Okoye make a decision that is not driven by her loyalty to Wakanda and its traditions, and none of her decisions are easy. I mean, the entire cast is great, and Boseman is a terrific lead (and Letitia Wright is his great little sister). But honestly, the person this movie made me really root for was Okoye, and I hope to see much more of Gurira in starring roles in the future.
Killmonger. Marvel movies often suffer from lackluster villains. A great villain needs to be grounded in comprehensible motives while also being larger-enough-than-life to present a catastrophic threat. Andy Serkis is delightfully flamboyant and transparently evil, but doesn’t play a proper Big Bad. Michael B. Jordan is both grounded and larger-than-life, and his terrifying, nihilistic anger is fueled by a laundry list of legitimate grievances. Few villains these days are persuasively tragic without neutering their evil aura. Jordan’s Killmonger is tightly written and superbly acted, and he walks that tightrope with grace.
Thorny Politics. The main arc of the story and of Killmonger’s origin is rooted in a Shakespearean family feud, but as in Shakespeare, the royal drama is an entryway into a nexus of thorny political issues ranging from the legacy of Europe’s colonial conquests to American slavery and institutional racism, even touching on global migration. I don’t think the film adequately sorts through those issues. It can’t. I think one of the takeaways from Black Panther is that systemic problems cannot be solved by a single hero, a single nation, or even the work of a single lifetime. That’s tough to say, and it’s tough to hear. Much hay will likely be made for several years over the film’s inadequate sensitivities or nuance toward decolonization and race, and I’m certain that many will simply remain staunchly skeptical that any product put out by Disney/Marvel could possibly be taken seriously as a work of political art. That’s fine. I think it’s simply worth noting that our film’s hero never contradicts the villain’s allegations against the colonial world, including America. He simply won’t permit apocalyptic revolution to be the way forward, and he’s willing to risk trying to solve these problems in the second-worst way possible: through diplomacy. I dig that Boseman has acknowledged that T’Challa is not optimally placed to take that stand..
That Ending. The final scene of the movie is darn near perfect. Marvel finally made its mothership connection.
A Few Gripes. There were things that didn’t do as much for me. Some of the CG was dodgy, and the supporting cast was perhaps a bit overstuffed. (I love Martin Freeman, but his character seriously did not need to be in this movie.) Coogler’s handling of the action sequences was sometimes choppy. On whole, though, I dug way more than I didn’t about Black Panther, and it is one of Marvel’s best movies so far.
In Relation to the MCU. One of the secrets of its success, I think, is that it is so little dependent on the Infinity War plotline. Though perhaps a bit bloated in terms of its runtime, I think Coogler and his editors cut the film very efficiently, and the focus never strayed from what this film is about. When compared with, say, Doctor Strange (another Marvel film I actually rather loved), it’s revealing to consider how much of that film was spent delivering expository dialogue. All stories need exposition, but Black Panther delivers so much of it with careful attention to costuming, staging, music, etc. (in short, through good filmmaking) that the dialogue can focus on the big character beats and let viewers absorb the rest through osmosis. If an Infinity Stone was dropped into the middle of it, that balance would be thrown off even more.
Much as I look forward to Avengers: Infinity War, a movie like Black Panther simply makes me excited to see more Marvel movies spotlighting particular heroes, especially if Marvel continues to give each filmmaker just enough latitude to make each movie individually meaningful while still participating in the same universe.☕