The Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrates its tenth year in 2018 and to kick it off they released possibly their most anticipated solo effort to date, “Black Panther”. By now it’s a cliché that Marvel movies are critical darlings, and if you’re looking for a film to buck that trend keep looking. Sporting an amazing and committed cast, game changing visuals and story elements and one of Marvel’s most layered villains to date “Black Panther” is the superhero movie we deserve at this point in the MCU’s lifespan. But is it truly among Marvel’s absolute best? Is this film a true gem that rises above the novelty of being Marvel’s first black superhero film? Here is my review of “Black Panther”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
Picking up directly after the events of “Captain America: Civil War”, where the Black Panther first joined the MCU, “Black Panther” finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) preparing to take his role as king of Wakanda while also embracing his alter ego, the Black Panther. When an old enemy, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) resurfaces T’Challa takes it upon himself to apprehend him, but after he fails his thrown is challenged by a mysterious man named Erik “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) forcing T’Challa to come to piece with an old family secret and technologically advanced Wakanda’s place in the world at large. Along with his technological genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), old friend Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and others T’Challa utilizes a new suit and a new approach to his thrown to stop a threat that could impact the entire world if left unstopped.
There are a lot of great performances in “Black Panther” so I’ll only touch on a few highlight ones. Needless to say this is a cast of mostly black actors and it seems director Ryan Coogler (the mind behind the excellent “Rocky” spinoff “Creed”) and the casting department picked the absolute best to be a part of Marvel’s first true African American led hero film (Blade is an antihero so don’t give me any of that, and yes there is a difference). Everyone in this film has fun and completely embraces their roles in a story that manages to find its way out of the crowded Marvel universe and create a world all its own.
It’s all led by the king himself T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman. Channeling the same accent and personality he brought to life in “Civil War” Boseman provides a pleasantly consistent portrayal of Black Panther and even adds to his character capturing the innocence and subtle arrogance of the young king. It’s important to remember that T’Challa, in many ways, is still a young man and seeing him be presented as a youthful king with flaws, confused and frustrated by his new responsibility. These are traits that call back to the learning curve of Tony Stark in the early MCU while also giving the Black Panther his own personality and life lessons. Boseman is captivating as the king, but also never tries to upstage his castmates provides an aura of cautious confidence balanced by anger and confusion for his character. T’Challa is very similar to other heroes we have seen grow up in the MCU, but somehow Boseman gives him a unique touch that helps him stand out as a flawed leader just trying to find his place in his kingdom and it’s magnificent to see.
As I said in my intro this film features one of the most complex villains in the MCU to date in Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka, better known ias Killmonger. A rival of the Black Panther with a mysterious past, Jordan totally owns his role as a villain providing an attitude and intimidation factor that helps him stand out even among Marvel’s more complex villains. Speaking of complexity, Killmonger is one of the MCU’s most layered bad guys because in truth he’s not all bad. He’s a tortured soul who has sought his chance for vengeance much of his life and feels the thrown is rightfully his to take. The character is provided a backstory and training that fully supports this depiction and brings him into the modern world and it’s all brought to perfect life by Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic and fun take on the baddy that not only compliments his “outsider” mentality, but makes him the perfect opposite of T’Challa when their deeper connection comes to light.
An impressive note for “Black Panther” is that not only does is sport a cast of amazing black actors, it also has a powerful cast of scene stealing women on board. Lupita Nyong’o co-stars as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend and spy for Wakanda, while Letitia Wright (seen above) portrays T’Challa’s sister Shuri and Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame portrays Okoye, the head of the all-female Wakandan special forces called the Dora Milaje. All three of these ladies play very significant roles in the story, acting as the main supporters of T’Challa and in many ways his confidants and compliment the king by providing certain attributes and specialties T’Challa himself lacks. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of these women play off Boseman and actually give their characters their own personalities that prevents them from falling into the rut many female leads in superhero movies tend to get lost in. These are no throw away damsels. Their strong women and it’s a truly great sight to see.
Overall it’s a cast oozing charisma and charm with some of the best in the business and some new faces bringing their A-games to the table. From heavy hitters like Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman to Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker “Black Panther” is not without it’s big names, but it’s the smaller names that shine and actually force the more well-known actors to step up. It all makes for a terrific ensemble cast and one of the most well-rounded the MCU has presented to date.
In addition to the amazing cast and villain as stated above, “Black Panther” works on so many more levels than just as another Marvel film. To get the obvious out of the way it does provide some great and tasteful commentary on race relations and the state of the world today. As the film progresses we find that part of Killmonger’s inspiration comes from the oppression of African Americans in the world at large and giving them the power to finally stand up against their “oppressors”. T’Challa serves as a voice of reason to explain that violence isn’t the answer to such injustices and by the end of the movie “Black Panther” slowly becomes a story of peace among all in humanity, bucking the thought of racial dominance. The movie also doesn’t beat you over the head with this social commentary. It’s there and it’s obvious, even becoming a major driving force for the villain, but it’s subtle enough where it makes its point without being preachy or pandering. Considering the obvious connections anyone could make between the name of the hero and the racial equality movement in America it was a nice touch to see the film go so far as to acknowledge the obvious standing issues without making the movie ALL about those problems.
When comparing it to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe “Black Panther” does fall into a bit of a rut in terms of story framework, something I’ll touch on in the negatives, but despite this the film is a great standalone project with it’s own awesome story and one of the most entertaining and beautiful solo films in the MCU. The visuals, soundtrack and character design are all fitting and absolutely mesmerizing and Wakanda is presented as an immersive world that shows us something we’ve never seen before in the MCU. Director Ryan Coogler gives us a world that fits right in to the majesty of the MCU and despite leaning on some typical tropes this helps “Black Panther” stand out.
Looking at “Black Panther” as a part of the wider Marvel universe this is the kind of movie that Marvel needs to create at this point, one that shows us a new part of the world we have yet to see and explores a new element of the expanded film universe. We’ve seen Marvel explore science, space, Gods, magic, war and other areas of fantasy but never before have we seen a film that explores mysticism and spirituality which is where “Black Panther” comes in. The movies leans heavily on themes of the ancestors and the afterlife as well as the concept of more symbolic deities and the power’s they pass on. “Black Panther’s” presentation and themes are unique to the MCU series and overall the movie feels like the natural progression the MCU had to take to stay fresh and relevant. As Marvel’s cinematic features continue to expand the in-film universe we see more and more subgenres play into the world and it’s impressive that even now a film like “Black Panther” is able to add some fresh concepts into the mix to once again offer something new and original even when we think we’ve seen it all.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The irony of “Black Panther” is its failures aren’t actually real failures. They’re simply an inability or unwillingness to expand from conventional storytelling formulas. For everything that “Black Panther” offers as a fresh addition to the MCU it’s still the same formulaic story structure we’ve come to expect from Marvel. The hero starts off happy, we get a not-so-subtle nod to their flaws, someone close to them or a family member becomes an enemy and threatens them, the hero loses their edge and their superpowered advantage, the hero gets their edge back by some means and the final battle rages against a foe that has the same exact powers or similar powers to our hero. Take away the social commentary, great story, awesome acting and what’s left is this shell, the same basic story format we get with every MCU movie.
It’s actually a compliment to the film and to Marvel that this same story structure can be reused for ten years and each time a film feels fresh. But it can’t be ignored that “Black Panther” sticks to convention, at least in terms of the framework of its story. That was the only disappointment I had from the movie and it was more as a fan of the MCU than as a critic of the movie. Marvel has made some great strides and reinvented how films work with the MCU, but if it’s going to continue to evolve and to remain relevant its story telling process must continue to morph as well. “Black Panther” proves that despite everything we’ve seen so far there is still so much more Marvel has to offer, but no amount of creativity and great storytelling can overpower the predictability of the framework of that story. Eventually something is going to have to shift and “Black Panther” doesn’t offer anything new on that front. Thankfully it’s yet another example of how Marvel’s format works when you give it a fresh coat of paint and while some may see it as a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of situation eventually it will break. When you already know what to expect, eventually that will come back to bite you and even for a hard core fan like me it makes the film a bit too predictable if you’re not into the deeper elements of the story. With “Black Panther” however there’s enough unique qualities and fun additions to the MCU to overpower the predictable nature of its story format, but it’s still an unfortunate reality that Marvel just seems to have a hard time overcoming with its solo outings.
“Black Panther” it not the absolute BEST MCU movie, but it’s in the top five in terms of solo outings and easily in the top ten in terms of overall Marvel properties. Adding new elements to the lore of the MCU and sporting one of the most complete and memorable ensemble casts of any Marvel film to date, MCU or otherwise, “Black Panther” is more than solid. It’s about as perfect as a solo superhero movie can be these days especially one that features its main character front-and-center for the first time. It’s entertaining, it’s well acted and well scripted, it’s visually stunning and it’s a story with deeper significance that avoids being heavy handed while making a statement. It’s only flaw is that the framework of the movie is the same old song and dance from Marvel right down to its villain having the same abilities as the hero, but even then director Ryan Coogler and the very capable cast give this movie its own identity. While “Black Panther” was destined to be a success due to its cultural significance alone, it’s much more than just a token black superhero movie. It’s a true blockbuster sporting substance and stamina. Not to mention it’s just an all-around fun superhero movie in general and one I can’t wait to see again.