There was a time in not-so-distant film history when making a comic-based superhero movie would have been a major gamble. Think about movies like Tim Burton’s Batman, Dick Tracy or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series. But, in the span of little more than a decade, a superhero movie seems like one of the surest bets in Hollywood. Even seemingly unmarketable properties like Guardians of the Galaxy or Doctor Strange have seen incredible critical and commercial success.
The ubiquity of the superhero sub-genre is an obvious win for Hollywood studios, but a potential hazard for movie fans. After all, what quicker way is there to spoil innovation and risk then the promise that sticking to the status quo will result in mountains of money? Marvel Studios, the Disney-owned harbinger of the modern comic book film era, has found itself at this crossroads in recent years, cranking out so many sequels and mash ups that the movies start to blur together. Their projects can sometimes feel as though they were directed by committee, rather than guided by any distinct artistic vision.
Then, something, well, marvelous happened. The juggernaut studio started to give its franchises to successful independent filmmakers, the kinds of unique voices who in most circumstances probably wouldn’t step anywhere near a superhero flick. This risk has paid off handsomely, resulting in a renaissance of sorts within the Marvel brand. Think of the hallucinatory insanity of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, or Taika Waititi’s comedically subversive Thor: Ragnarok. An easy addition to that list: Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s riotous and engrossing new movie, one that takes the Marvel brand and pushes it to new heights, resulting in one of the finest comic book flicks ever made.
Part of what makes Black Panther stand out is the fact that it doesn’t really feel like a Marvel movie at all. Sure, there are some returning characters and references to the events of Captain America: Civil War, but they are in service to a story that reaches far deeper than most comic-based fare. This is one of the only Marvel flicks that feels like it takes place in the real world.
We catch up with the panther, aka T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he prepares to take the throne after the death of his father, T’Chaka in Civil War. He returns to the African kingdom of Wakanda, hidden from the outside world for centuries and filled with futuristic technology gifted to the people when a meteor containing the indestructible metal vibranium crashed to earth centuries earlier. The kingdom of Wakanda ranks with Asgard, the home of Thor, as the most fully realized and visually stunning locales in the MCU. Its deep hues of blue and purple contain a fascinating mix of high tech and African tribalism, where high-speed bullet trains and remote-controlled spaceships can exist alongside African tribal divisions, complete with colorful garb and other identifiers such as piercings, lip discs and dreadlocks.
T’Challa returns to this complex ecosystem to perform in the ceremony where he will be crowned king of Wakanda. He is joined by his grieving but proud mother (Angela Bassett), his tech wizard sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), potential love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and a royal entourage that also doubles as a who’s-who of great black actors (Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker and Florence Kasumba, to name a few).
But T’Challa’s new rule is soon thrown into chaos, as the Wakandans race to stop some of their vibranium from falling into the hands of mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, in full un-CG’d glory) and a mysterious outsider who goes by the name Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has his own reasons for wanting Wakandan technology to be unleashed upon the world. Such sentiment stirs up conflict among the Wakandans; with their people being oppressed around the globe, might it not be wise to share this wonderous technology with others of African descent and take up arms against anyone who would oppress or demean their people?
The conflicts at the center of Black Panther are incredibly compelling, and they’re conflicts that director Coogler has taken an interest exploring throughout his body of work (his first two films were Fruitvale Station and Rocky franchise re-starter Creed). Tradition versus progress. Isolationism versus globalism. Peaceful, political protest versus violent revolt. The films touch deeply on subject matter that matters more to black communities than ever, and the result could not be timelier. It’s amazing that a superhero film with a predominately black cast would seem so revolutionary in 2018, but then again it we didn’t get a Wonder Woman movie until last year.
But the film is more than just a showcase for great black actors; it’s also a film that is boldly, unapologetically African. From the vibrant costume and makeup design to the pulsating tribal score and Rachel Morrison’s gorgeous cinematography, this is the very rare blockbuster that aesthetically embraces the black experience, and that makes it completely refreshing in a film universe that has been sadly lacking in diversity.
Thankfully, the film sails past simple eye candy. Like Marvel’s terrific Netflix series Luke Cage, it tackles head-on modern issues of black identity such as racial injustice and absentee fathers. I don’t know that a superhero flick has felt this necessary since The Dark Knight encapsulated America’s post-9/11 anxieties, and that potent realism helps the film to feel thrillingly current and alive.
Speaking of lively, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Black Panther features some of the finest acting seen in the sub-genre. You can tell the actors knew they were making more than a fun popcorn flick: they were making something important, and it shows. I love Danai Gurira’s work on The Walking Dead, but her ferocious warrior Okoye is a marvelous creation on a whole different level. Particular praise should also go to Letitia Wright, whose Shuri should an inspiration to black women everywhere. Here’s a gorgeous young woman who is also a super-genius, leagues ahead of, say, Tony Stark; the implication that the Wakandans are the holders of ultimate knowledge and power is a brilliant and liberating reversal of reality, when black people are often the ones in positions of vulnerability.
But the highest praise must go to the main leads. Boseman’s Panther was a highlight of Civil War, and here he’s given the depth he deserves. Boseman is an amazing actor who always seems to give his all to his work, and that shows here. T’Challa is a fascinatingly complex hero, burdened with a responsibility he doesn’t quite know how to bear, and often brought to his knees by his perceived failures. The brilliant Michael B. Jordan gives us the best villain in the MCU. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole easily side-step Marvel’s villain problem by making Killmonger equal parts ferocious and vulnerable. His motivations are complex but understandable, and he’s the victim of an egregious past wrong that ignites the central conflict and gains the character a certain amount of sympathy. There were times when I felt I sided more with Killmonger’s perspective than T’Challa’s, and that’s a remarkable step in the right direction, especially when you have an actor as good as Jordan in front of the camera.
If there’s a complaint to level at the film, it’s a minor one, and one of preference. It’s easy to see that Coogler and company put less priority the traditional superhero antics and action scenes than they did the story, characters and social parallels. In my mind, that’s an easily acceptable trade, especially because any shmuck can blow stuff up. And yet, apart from an awesome car chase sequence, the film lacks the gorgeously choreographed action of Thor: Ragnarok or the epic scale of the Captain America series. For a film with this much on its mind and heart, I can accept a downgrade when it comes to the action, but Marvel fans looking for extremely memorable fight sequences might be a tad disappointed.
Despite being based upon a decades-old property, Black Panther is very much a movie of the moment. In all the ways that count, it’s the finest example of its sub-genre since The Dark Knight. It’s vibrant, searing, and just plain fun. But even its most superfluous moments are cut with the undercurrent of profound social commentary that binds the film together. Coogler and company have crafted something special and, in some ways, groundbreaking here. There’s a new king in town, and I say “hail, hail!”