Black Panther : Review
It’s impossible to nail down exactly why Black Panther is absolutely magnificent in one viewing. The film works on so many levels – as a straight-ahead action movie, a superhero movie, a political allegory, a Shakespearean drama, not to mention a hurtin’-bomb of an entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe – you’ll need multiple screenings to decipher its nuanced and probing look at life in the nation of Wakanda.
What’s of wonder about Black Panther is its distinctive flavor. Yes, there’s the expected Marvel aesthetic and feel, but director (and co-writer) Ryan Coogler successfully navigates it into its own space where the film doesn’t rely on constant winks and nods to previous entries. Instead, it forges its singular path, away from the overly-jokey and into a labyrinthine work of secrets, lies, betrayals, and redemption.
That’s not to say the film’s humorless or dry. Far from it – for instance, we see a very funny bit of exposition early on involving T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) encountering his old flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), with his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and royal guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) calling him out on his resulting odd behavior. It’s playful and familial; the joke and the performances land in a heartfelt, down-to-earth way, unlike a lot of the backhanded, borderline insulting one-liners from other Marvel films.
Coogler maintains this tether to the soul in every frame, line reading, action sequence, and special effect. There is no action without consequence, no death without reckoning; there is no flippant, offhand, wanton destruction. Each scene exists for a reason, whether it’s to explore Wakanda’s secret history of shielding itself from the outside world, or to give rise to Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a seemingly hotheaded mercenary with a (sometimes literal) axe to grind with Wakanda.
Boseman and Jordan are solid anchors and opposites holding this film down, akin to the symbiotic of a band’s rhythm section; each push and pull has meaning and purpose. Boseman plays T’Challa as the thoughtful, wise leader who inspires the best in his people, giving his character a radiant, irresistible vibe which carries the film from beginning to end. He’s genuine and smart, surrounded by equally genuine and smart family and friends, especially the just-as-awesome Shuri, given an irrepressible spirit by Letitia Wright.
Wheeling 180° away from T’Challa and his crew is Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a merciless individual who values might over right, strength over wisdom, force over diplomacy. We see it in everything he does, wears, and is. He first appears to us dressed in stylish outerwear with heavy layers which get peeled further and further back – both literally and figuratively – until we arrive at the truth of who he is and what his ties to Wakanda are.
Sounds good enough for a Marvel movie, right? But switch up the standard Marvel script with a bit of Julius Caesar-like betrayal – not only for T’Challa, but for some surprising characters as well – and go well beyond superficial action and staging, and that’s what we have with Black Panther. A random plot thread from Avengers: Age of Ultron is followed up on and given a definitive ending, but it’s merely a stepping stone for the T’Challa/Killmonger conflict.
While Marvel films like Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy reveled in irreverence and mirth, accompanied by gadgets galore and fun action, Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s script gives a little more meaning to all the punches and fights. There aren’t any big-city destructo-fests, no aliens dropping out of wormholes; this is a war for home, country, and for the very soul of Wakanda. One side wants to make weapons of all of Wakanda’s technology and eradicate the people in power trying to keep them in chains; the other side wishes to stay hidden, not wishing to be the cause of international strife.
It’s a film timely in its desperate call for togetherness, wishing for the world’s tribes to unite and push to get to the next level. THIS is the kind of film we need right now; a mass-media giant willing to go against the tide and not be content to be merely a stepping stone in a long line of superhero flicks. Black Panther makes its indelible mark upon cinema by using its soul and its heart to power its action scenes, not the other way around, making it the finest Marvel film yet.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.
Mid- and post-credits scenes? Yes.
Running time: 134 minutes.
Released by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.