It’s common for any piece of pop culture to be evaluated not only by its critical merits but also by the cultural context under which it is released. Movies and TV often serve as a reflection of the time in which they are created and Marvel Studios’ Black Panther could not possibly be more timely. This is so much more than another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). From Creed director Ryan Coogler, Black Panther represents Marvel’s first film with an African-American director and a predominantly African-American cast, Black Panther is a true watershed moment in both superhero filmmaking and cultural representation in Hollywood as a whole.
Black Panther stars Chadwick Boseman (reprising his role from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War) as T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and the titular Black Panther. The film follows T’Challa as he tries to balance his role as king with the traditions of Wakanda and changing world around him. While Boseman’s performance may be a little stilted at times, the character is portrayed as both deeply compassionate and able-bodied in equal measure. This is a man who has his flaws but its deeply committed to his family and to his people.
For centuries, the fictional African nation of Wakanda thrived because of an alien metal called vibranium that has allowed them to develop technological advances years beyond the rest of the world. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is a poor farming nation but in reality, they are anything but. Much of the film’s conflict stems from the fact that Wakanda has kept its advances to itself in order to both protect its people and to keep their weapons from falling into the wrong hands. T’Challa’s old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) would have Wakanda use its resources to provide aid and relief to those who are hurting while the film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” (played by the great Michael B. Jordan), wants nothing more than to use the weapons of Wakanda to allow repressed people all over the world to rise up and rush their oppressors.
A large portion of T’Challa’s journey in the movie centers on what sort of king he aims to be. Will he continue to keep Wakanda isolated from the world or will he open its vast knowledge in the hopes of benefitting the rest of the world? One of Black Panther’s greatest strengths is the way in which it tackles issues like isolationism in a manner that is both organic to its plot and entertaining. The key messages of the film are displayed front and center but never in a way that was distracting or obtrusive. Some of Boseman’s best scenes in the movie come when he comes to realize the flaws and limitations of Wakanda’s current lifestyle.
Speaking of Wakanda, director Ryan Coogler (Creed), co-writer Joe Robert Cole, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (who worked with Coogler on Fruitvale Station) do a fantastic job bringing the country to life. Wakanda has a look and feel all its own and each of the nation’s tribes are represented with distinct visual identity. The way in which African culture is blended with hyper-advanced technology is incredible. This is a film that revels in its influences and presents them in the most confident way possible.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Black Panther is what it means to millions of African-Americans across the nation and those of African descent in other parts of the world. To see themselves so well represented on screen likely means more to them than I can possibly imagine. That significance excites me beyond words. This movie will be successful not just because it is diverse but because it uses that diversity to create something different and unique. This is not a bargain bin film, they pulled out all the stops.
Black Panther also succeeds as a standalone feature in the MCU because it bypasses a lot of the stumbling blocks of most superhero origin films. We start with T’Challa established as the Black Panther and preparing to step into his role as king. Thanks to the groundwork laid by previous films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and the aforementioned Civil War, I felt like much of the heavy lifting was already taken care of. However, don’t think you need to see either of those films to understand what is going on here. This movie stands completely on its own and is only augmented by its connection to the rest of the MCU rather than hindered by it.
Despite the film’s merits, it’s not perfect. The pacing is rather uneven at the beginning and the final action set piece feels rather bland. Thankfully a second act chase sequence set in South Korea really gives the film a shot in the arm and delivers the movie’s best action set piece. While I would never call the film boring, I do think it could have easily come in at under two hours. Granted 2 hours and 12 minutes is hardly a long runtime.
The CGI during most of the film’s action sequences is unfortunately subpar. It doesn’t blend well with the action and it’s far too easy to tell when our performers have been swapped out for computer generated body doubles. The scenes are filled with lots of close shots and quick cuts that can make it hard to follow what’s going on. It leaves the action feeling rather unexciting and missing much of the impact it was surely intended to have. That said because the film’s characters are so well defined, the action mostly felt like an extension of character beats rather than just a series of cool “gif-able” moments. There are cool moments because we get to see compelling characters being badasses.
Despite those complaints, there was never a point where I didn’t enjoy Black Panther. Almost every aspect of the film is executed with such confidence that I wasn’t bothered by the poor action set pieces or the slow portions of the film. The good far outweighs the bad here.
Alongside Boseman, Coogler has assembled an all-star cast absolutely brimming with talent. Notably, this film is packed with badass women who are more than capable of taking care of themselves. Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead) stands out as the leader of T’Challa’s royal guard the Dora Milaje. There’s also the aforementioned Nyong’o who’s spy Nakia is fiercely independent and steadfast in her desire to help those less fortunate. One of my favorite cast members is Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s little sister Shuri. The dynamic between the two siblings is playful and warm. Shuri is Wakanda’s resident tech genius but she’s not above busting her brother’s chops over his crush on Nakia or making fun of his choice in footwear. The cast is rounded out by veterans like Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett who play an elder statesman and T’Challa’s mother respectively. Both don’t have huge roles but the gravitas they bring is appreciated.
Special attention must be paid to Michael B. Jordan for delivering the strongest performance as a Marvel villain since Tom Hiddleston gave us Loki. I’m hesitant to even use the word villain since Killmonger’s motivations are so clearly defined and relatable that in another film you might consider him the protagonist. He’s not after some magic sky beam that’s going to destroy the world instead he only seeks to right the wrongs that he has seen committed across his entire life. His methods for inciting change may be violent and wrong but never once did the film fail to make it clear what his end goal was.
Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis also reprise their roles from past Marvel films but their characters serve little purpose beyond lending the film some connections to past MCU films. Both give decent if unremarkable performances. Serkis does seem to be having a ball playing Ulysses Klaue though.
Black Panther is not a perfect film but so much of it works that it hardly matters. Marvel not only delivered a confident solo entry into the MCU but they have given millions of African-Americans an icon they can identify with. The film is powerful in its messaging and is executed with a tremendous degree of skill. On top of all that, it’s just plain fun to watch. I had a great time watching Black Panther and would gladly go see it again. Heck, I’ll even buy it on Blu-ray when it comes out.
Films like Black Panther make me excited to be a lover of pop culture. It makes me excited that we live in a day and age where voices from all walks of life have a chance to be represented on screen. We are all better when exposed the viewpoints of others. We’ve come far but have even further still to go. I can only hope that Black Panther is the first of many instances where creators from minority groups are given the platform and resources to execute their visions on such a grand scale.
Go see this film.