Heavy hangs the crown in Black Panther, a Marvel movie whose real-life cultural and societal implications overshadow its storytelling prowess. The import and impact of Black Panther as a chapter in film history cannot be overstated. Although this isn’t Hollywood’s first attempt to turn a historically black superhero into the main event, headlining their own tentpole film – consider Wesley Snipes run as the vampire-hunter Blade, Halle Berry’s turn as Catwoman, Will Smith’s alcoholic anti-hero Hancock or even Shaquille O’Neal’s turn as Steel – this feels like a first in part because of how much effort has been poured into its making and, more importantly, how readily it embraces its fundamental blackness, from its colorful African settings to its tribally-influenced makeup, hairstyle, and costumes to its predominately black cast and crew, a verifiable assemblage of talent that’ll turn even the most skeptical of heads.
Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) spearheads the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, piecing together a who’s who of essential black talent. Coogler plucks from the small and silver screen alike, rallying Emmy and Golden Globe-winner Angela Basset, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), a scene-stealing Letitia Wright (Black Mirror‘s “Black Museum”) and the battle-tested Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) for what is almost certainly the most kick-ass quartet of female empowerment seen in any MCU flick.
From the old – Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog, The Last King of Scotland, Rogue One) – to the new – breakout star and Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) – Black Panther celebrates its blackness by filling every nook and cranny of the film with African symbolism, mythology, and memorabilia, in addition to its host of talent with their multitude of African roots. This movie is a direct descendant of Africa, untouched by the white-washing, cultural gentrification and social colonizing that so often pollutes Hollywood features, even making one of its villains a Caucasian looter (Andy Serkis) capitalizing on the natural riches of Black Panther’s home nation of Wakanda.
The result is often dazzlingly singular – and gorgeous to boot – ushering racial inclusion in in such a casual and just manner that you almost forget many of the movie’s underlying messages are rooted in division. On top of that, the cast is loaded with female co-star that truly share the limelight. Given spears, courage and technical know-how to match, or outpace rather, their male counterparts, none are ever relegated to the damsel in distress archetype. In many ways, it’s strange that a full-fledged “black” blockbuster – superhero or otherwise – of this kind hasn’t really existed before and Black Panther does a fine job of trying to make the adjustment as structurally subtle as possible. This often means that while the window dressings have changed drastically, Black Panther’s are familiar stories, repurposed for the umpteenth time on screen.
Exploring the baton passing from one generation to the next, one of Black Panther’s primary themes involves the idea of legacy and how a man goes about shaping his. Here, a son – and now king – shaken by the loss of his father, must return to his homeland to be shaped into a true leader, where the general narrative thrust wouldn’t be out of place shuffled in with some spare “Macbeth” passages. Shakespearean at heart, Coogler’s film mixes royal melodrama with big spectacle and sometimes the excellent small-scale elements get overwhelmed by the humdrum larger routine hard at work. Though it gets the little details right, the main thrust of this story is largely rote, predictable and can be an admittedly dull affair.
Also a first in Marvel history is that for the first time in the ten years that Marvel Studios have been producing these films, the villain proves vastly more interesting than the hero. Chadwick Boseman is still well cast as the titular Black Panther and does his best to wield that funky made-up Wakandan accent but he’s distinctly more serious in nature and notably less witty than his Marvel counterparts. Characterized by a benevolent drive to do good and lacking a knack to slag off and wisecrack, T’Challa’s serious nature makes him a welcome counterbalance to lippy characters like Tony Stark, Peter Quill, and Steven Strange, but he can be a bit of a drag by himself.
Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, on the other hand, is fire. He ignites the screen every time he steps into the frame, immediately making any scene more interesting with his beefy screen presence. Ultimately, Killmonger falls into the typical Marvel movie evil-alter-ego-of-the-hero, wearing an identical suit and duking it out with identical combat styles, but that doesn’t go down until the tail end, allowing the character space to develop and flourish as an individual motivated by needs and deep-seated pain before stuffing him into a supervillain suit and crashing him against the hero. I would have sacrified any amount of time spent with T’Challa to get some more chill time with Killmonger.
When it does come time to do the requisite smashing of good guys and bad, the overwhelming feeling is “been there, done that”, with even Black Panther repeating some of the same “cat on a hot tin car” routine we saw him debut withinCivil War. The CG can be tireless, the action filled with so many close-up angles and quick cuts that it can feel like we’re watching a Taken sequel. Coogler excelled showcasing long-form action beatdowns in Creed so it’s disappointing to see what felt like a total lack of artistic vision and unique take on any of the action spectacle. And since Black Panther demands so many quick switches between human facial reaction and suited-up action, in any given fight there’s about as many “mask on” and “mask off” moments as in a Future refrain and that can be a bit silly, if not disorienting.
While Black Panther definitely falls short in the action department, many of the technical elements are positively lit. The production design is crisp and cool, existing somewhere between an African art exhibit and a next-gen research facility. The music, kickstarted by a Kendrick Lamar track and scored with an ear for Sub-Saharan rhythms, brings both history and depth of culture to the proceeding, in addition to just being one of Marvel’s better sonic entries. Returning to an earlier train of thought to emphasize a point I cannot overstate, this ensemble cast deserves mad credit for being one of Marvel’s absolute bests, each character developed with the kind of love and attempt you cannot fake and given a robust place within this universe, each a well-oiled and intricate part of T’Challa’s story and essential to its telling.
Black Panther ought to also be credited for what is not on the screen, just as much for what is. Even though this is the last MCU film building up to Avengers: Infinity Wars, there are no signs of infinity stones, no other superhero character cameos, no mention of a larger world at all really. This exclusionism mimics the Wakandian policies. In Black Panther, Wakanda is a state separate from the world, untouched by the long historic lash of racial violence; one that celebrates its independence and looks out at the remainder of the world with grieving pause. So too does Black Panther separate itself from the pantheon of MCU installments, borrowing but two tertiary characters – a pair of white men, Serkis and Martin Freeman (brilliantly labeled the “Tolkien White Guys” by a writer far more clever than I) – who have appeared in the MCU timeline previously. Desperately trying to say something in a film franchsie notable for not really ever saying anything, Coogler deals legitimate themes of colonialism and its far-reach cost in alongside the catty fisticuffs. The former proves, undoubtedly, of far more appeal than the later. With Black Panther, Coogler glances out, forlorn but hopeful, at a world that gave him pause. Also paws.
CONCLUSION: ‘Black Panther’ is a historic landmark of representation and inclusion on the big screen and has many elements to celebrate, most notably its kick-ass cast and many production marvels. The story and action spectacle however languish; the former – familiar; the later – busy and uninspired. ‘Black Panther’ does, however, boast one of the MCU’s most fully-developed villains in addition to one of its all-around best ensembles.