By Jarrod Jones. Black Panther is entirely unlike anything you’ve seen in any Marvel movie before.
Yes, there’s the “cracked mirror” version of the hero set into place as the film’s villain, and yes, their costumes have diametrically opposed color schemes so you know who’s who and what’s what. It’s all very Iron Man, or Ant-Man in that respect. And then Black Panther takes those comparisons and obliterates them. They go right into the nit-picky fanboy trash heap where they belong.
Because that’s where those comparisons, feeble as they are, come to an end for Black Panther. Politically, it’s the most finger-on-the-pulse these flicks have been since Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it’s so much more than that. This might be the first Marvel Studios film with, if you’ll allow it, claws. A backbone. It has no time to play around and it doesn’t mince words. This isn’t a film looking to capture a moment. It’s not a part of some zeitgeist. It’s the kind of film perfectly willing to topple its own mythology by having villains point out the flimsy nature of its hero’s home country. A democratic nation, militarized yet prosperous, unwilling to share because of the precarious nature of the world? Wakanda, tell me more.
The best bit is that Black Panther doesn’t feel like an obligation like so many of these dang Marvel movies often do. Instead it offers us something different. It dares to myth-make, to crack open a whole new world in a franchise that’s already damn near ten years old and brimming with nonsense planets and locales. And while it’s spinning yarns fit to make Tolkien dizzy it bothers to sprinkle in substantial cares and worries about the nature of our actual lives. It’s aware of our world. Its heart aches for it.
Black Panther approaches its first knee-jerk criticism — What kind of story is left if our hero’s origin was told during Captain America: Civil War? — by doing its homework and working beyond it. The film tackles the power vacuum left behind by the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani, who reprises his role in surprising ways) even if the obvious heir apparent’s name is on the marquee. It’s here where the ethos of Black Panther feels so substantial. (And, as a result, gives meaty roles to all of its supporting players, such as Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett.)
Black Panther has questions on its mind and it doesn’t take any shortcuts towards the answers. Michael B. Jordan, a monolith of charisma as the film’s central antagonist, N’Jadaka — or Erik Stevens, or Killmonger, take your pick — articulates the obvious questions one might put to a virtual Eden like Wakanda. If an African nation can thrive while its own people, countrymen or otherwise, suffer in profound ways… why wouldn’t that nation intercede? And, more importantly, why isn’t the new king asking these questions?
That has our hero of this drama, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), scrambling to keep on top. His burden came too quickly (despite his mother queen telling him that it’s his time), and his earnestness may be too soft for some of the surrounding tribal leaders who would otherwise hail his ascent. (Daniel Kaluuya, wonderful in Get Out, steps in to articulate these dilemmas.) In Erik, T’Challa has a potent foil. He’s certainly the strongest antagonist in the MCU by a huge margin; their worldviews are so knitted together and yet so far apart that the societal implications of their conflict are staggering.
Boseman has the same swagger and ferocity that was on display in Civil War, but director Ryan Coogler’s focus is often set on his admittedly tremendous supporting cast. Lupita Nyong’o, especially, gives Black Panther its conspiratorial bonafides as though there was a desire to see a black female-led spy film franchise. (Spoilers: there is.) Letitia Wright, as T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri, provides the film its biggest laughs. And Danai Gurira, my god — she damn near walks away with the entire film as Okoye, leader of Dora Milaje. (They’re the bodyguards to the king, and a force to be reckoned with.) Gurira is here for the MCU, though I’m not convinced it’s entirely deserving of her.
Sidebar: I’m beyond stoked to see what she gets up to in Infinity War. Guirira looks right at home charging into the fray alongside Chris Evans’ Cap and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. See this movie and you’ll understand why.
Colonialism and slavery factor into Black Panther, as they must for a film where the central location is an African nation untouched by years of European land grabbing. Wakanda, as Marvel fiction tells it, had the benefit of being the one place in this world where precious minerals landed quite literally at its doorstep, and planted roots towards its technological superiority. (Wakanda’s local export, vibranium, is the stuff that makes up Captain America’s mighty shield.) But at surface level, the world sees Wakanda as a lesser state, a monarchy gone dusty. If they only knew.
At its heart, it’s the film’s awareness of our reality that makes Black Panther such an incredible film. It challenges us by declaring that we can do better. Ryan Coogler set loose upon us a world worth exploring. A technological wonder, a natural paradise, complex, unique, astounding. Asgard, eat your heart out.
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Produced by Kevin Feige.
Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis.
Rated PG-13 for bloody violence and appropriate uses for the word ‘shit’.
9 out of 10