We’re already looking forward to revisiting Wakanda.
Most movies, especially those aiming for blockbuster status, exist as enclosed experiences that begin with the first frame and end with the last. Sometimes, though, a big movie comes along carrying weight well beyond the theater screen. Last year’s Wonder Woman, for example, offered up a massive superhero adventure with a long-overdue female undeniably at the forefront. It’s happening again this year with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther, a film that not only features an African-American hero at its center but that also features an overwhelmingly black cast on both sides of the moral divide. It’s an incredible achievement, and while you want it to be a good movie that’s almost beside the point as its very existence is already worth celebrating.
Happily, director Ryan Coogler‘s (Creed) first foray into the Marvel Universe is also a damn fine piece of entertainment.
The character of Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to his friends, was introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War where his father was killed leaving him to claim the throne of his home country of Wakanda. The African nation is seen as destitute by the rest of the world, but in truth they’re the most advanced nation on Earth. The large mountain of Vibranium at their core is a big reason for that, and over the years they’ve developed amazingly advanced technologies that the rest of the world can only imagine. They’ve kept their secret and remained safe in the process through a combination of deception and an illusory shield over their central city — think Wonder Woman‘s Themyscira — but staying out of the world’s affairs means something else too.
They haven’t lifted a Vibranium-gloved hand to help their African neighbors both on the continent and beyond. Decades of poverty and racism-fueled carnage against black men, women, and children has been allowed to continue while Wakanda lives quietly in peace and comfort. It’s that truth, along with a personal connection to the country itself, that leads Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) to challenge T’Challa and all who stand with him.
Coogler has created something special with Black Panther, both in the big picture of casting and representation and in the more traditional realm of purely entertaining film-making. This is a gorgeous movie with a rich tapestry of visuals, culture, and characters. Sure the dramatic crux of much of it comes down to Marvel’s patented “daddy issue” formula, but the performances and subtext make it personal. We can’t help but care about the outcome here, especially as we find ourselves wooed by the villain’s grand motivations.
The film feels at times like Coogler’s audition reel to direct the next James Bond as scenes set in an illicit casino, an effort to stop an arms deal, and the presence of an American CIA officer (Martin Freeman) smell very much like 007 territory. We also get a new and improved Q in the form of T’Challa’s little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who in addition to being a tech wizard is the source of the film’s funniest moments with dialogue and expressions guaranteed to leave viewers laughing aloud. She’s an absolute blast but still just one of several character highlights.
In addition to being the butt of more than a few of Shuri’s zingers the aforementioned Freeman is also given more to do here than expected and shines in the process. Winston Duke impresses as M’Baku, the charismatic as hell leader of the only Wakandan tribe not to align themselves with T’Challa’s family. Andy Serkis returns as Ulysses Klaue and is a deliriously fun bundle of unhinged energy and maniacal joy. Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are both real stunners as smart, fierce, and beautiful presences in and out of the action. And we also get Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, and dozens more who lack name recognition but stand out in bright, engaging, and colorful ways.
There are the expected bumps in the script — it’s a Marvel movie after all — but for the most part character dynamics and motivations feel natural and rhythmic ensuring that the film’s two hour-plus running time never drags or sags. We get a few scenes outside Wakanda, but the film as a whole is centered within the city’s walls and both above and below the surface. Viewers are invited into a functional world given shine by metal and technology but given life by culture, custom, and citizenry, and it easily ranks as one of the more visually appealing superhero endeavors.
Black Panther‘s stumbles as big entertainment are minor, all things considered, but still notable in two distinct areas. First, for as beautiful as much of Wakanda and the film looks from production design through costuming, there are some rough CG beats here as rushed transitions and an over-reliance on green screen over sets reveal cracks beneath the otherwise stunning surface. Second, and a bit more damning, the film’s action underwhelms. From a big field battle hurt by the wobbly inconsistencies of Vibranium’s powers to a Busan-set car chase clearly inspired by Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet lessened by sketchy CG, the action beats are a distraction from everything else that works so well. There are also a pair of one-on-one fights that while presented competently leave a bad taste when you realize this incredibly advanced utopia chooses their leader by way of fights to the death (or to the concession). Because that’s… dumb?
It’s a fascinating switch, though, as too often movies like these treat dialogue and other calm scenes as downtime between the exciting highs. Here the action beats are what we sit through while waiting to return to Rachel Morrison‘s sumptuous cinematography, Hannah Beachler‘s eye-catching production design, and Ruth E. Carter‘s mesmerizing costume designs. Again, it’s part of the bigger picture, but it’s worth applauding that along with Coogler (and the all-powerful Kevin Feige) these three women are responsible for the entire look and design of one of 2018’s biggest films. That’s no small thing, and the results are extraordinary.
Black Panther is a blend of the familiar and the refreshing, and happily there’s more than enough of the latter to make it stand out in a crowded field. Like the best blockbusters it’s flawed but ridiculously entertaining anyway, and like too few of them it’s also so incredibly important.