It’s funny how perspective has shifted on Black Panther as a character so quickly. For years, he was a cult favorite who spoke to a specific community but never really took center stage. Then, as the Marvel movie empire expanded, Black Panther suddenly became an important pop icon. An obscure comic book character who Wesley Snipes struggled for years to bring to the big screen quickly grew into one of the most hyped and cherished superhero properties in development.
The pressure was on, and somehow what was intended to be a sideline superhero intro flick became arguably the most anticipated comic book blockbuster on Marvel’s slate (possibly even more than the grandiose ‘Infinity War’ crossover).
In a world where even Ant-Man got a blockbuster, Black Panther needed his due. More importantly, the character needed to be brought to life with a certain level of intellectual rigor and respect in addition to all the usual superhero badassery. Representation has never been more important in the entertainment industry, and getting such an important black superhero on the screen in style quietly became a big deal, even after a teasing and exciting debut in ‘Captain America: Civil War’. Thankfully, MCU mastermind Kevin Feige found the perfect filmmaker for ‘Black Panther’ in Ryan Coogler. Even better, he set aside the typical demands of cross-film promotion and Marvel mythology meshing for the sake of giving Coogler a chance to deliver a personal vision within an expensive round of superhero bang-bang. This isn’t just the next product plopped off the Marvel assembly line. It’s something special that just happens to also exist within Disney’s cinematic action figure factory. Anyone who claims that Marvel doesn’t give their filmmakers freedom needs to cut that line of discussion out right now.
The movie takes place in the mythical land of Wakanda, a fictional African nation dreamed up by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby long ago that appears to be an impoverished country on the surface, but secretly houses an opulent kingdom. Generations ago, the nation discovered a supply of the ridiculously named but very important Marvel substance vibranium. The kingdom clung to the riches it brought and, through some delightfully convoluted faux folklore, also has a superpowered warrior/king named Black Panther. The title is passed through bloodline, now landing on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who inherited the throne and costume back in ‘Civil War’.
For the first hour or so of ‘Black Panther’, Coogler takes his time to let this world and mythology breathe in a beautiful way. The team of production designer Hanna Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter meticulously created a variety of tribes (including one led by Daniel Kaluuya from ‘Get Out’), all gorgeously shot in vibrant comic book colors by the recently Oscar nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Coogler builds the world carefully and with grace. It has competing tribes with internal drama. Scene-stealing women warriors called Dore Miljae are led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), who intimidates and dominates like few other Marvel ass-kickers. T’Challa’s kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) even proves to be a wisecracking techno genius who acts as Black Panther’s Q and ensures that the cast is uncommonly filled with potent women of color in front of and behind the camera. (I haven’t even mentioned Lupita Nyong’o, who’s on spy/love interest duty.)
The world of Wakanda that Coogler and his remarkable team create is so vivid and full of enticing drama and eccentric characters that it’s easy to get lost in. A great deal of care has gone into ensuring that this comic book tentpole takes Afrocentric representation seriously and with style (all backed by Kendrick Lamar’s pretty damn great soundtrack as well). It resonates. However, Coogler hasn’t weighed down a superhero yarn with political poignancy. That context springs naturally from the material and speaks without ever detracting from what is ultimately a brilliant bit of pop/pulp entertainment. Having grown from intimate indie drama (‘Fruitville Station’) to franchise filmmaking (‘Creed’) and now a superhero blockbuster in record speed, Coogler is a director loaded with talent and excited by the opportunity to show off. He relishes creating tension and exploding action sequences off the screen within all of his wondrous world-building. His flowing camera shooting style is perfectly married with a magically insane action sequence set in South Korea that’s an absolute showstopper. Although things eventually start to feel a little generic in the Marvel house style way, Coogler rarely lets a scene go by without injecting some sort of purpose and personality.
All that, and I haven’t even gotten to the best aspect of the movie yet. While it initially seems that the villain will be Andy Serkis’ deranged arms dealer who has been slowly built up in the MCU (alongside Martin Freeman’s bumbling CIA agent, who makes a return as well), that’s ultimately all misdirection. The real villain and secret star of the whole film is Michael B. Jordan. It initially seemed a little sad that Coogler’s regular lead actor would get only a small supporting role. However, that’s not really the case. What makes the character so special should be kept secret as the filmmakers intended, but he emerges as easily the most interesting Marvel villain to date, one with a motive easy to empathize with and a master plan that might even seem noble were it not psychotic. The character is written and played with surprising depth, and he brings fascinating and contemporary themes to the table that make this a far more thoughtful film than the usual superhero beat-’em-ups. It’s something truly special and deserves to be discovered as the delightfully complex surprise Coogler intended.
There’s so much going on in ‘Black Panther’ executed so damn well that the title hero occasionally almost feels sidelined in his own movie. Thankfully, Chadwick Boseman remains one of the finest actors of his generation and delivers a charming, flawed, and potent hero who earns his superhero status in ways few characters in this roving universe ever have. He’s a welcome addition to the MCU, and the film thrusting him into the spotlight is easily one of the highlights of this entire epic shared universe cinematic experiment.
The film may have the usual Marvel movie issues, like an overlong running time and moderately underwhelming action finale. However, the minor flaws in ‘Black Panther’ do little to detract from the whole. This isn’t just going to be the best superhero movie of 2018; it’s also likely going to be one of the most important and resonant films of the year as well. It’s a giddy popcorn blockbuster with all the necessary thrills and spills executed with so much thought and care that it cuts deeper than mere entertainment. This film will likely be a bit of a cultural phenomenon to warm up the cold winter months and then something that sticks around and is beloved for many moons after that.