My chief complaint about Marvel’s unending stream of superhero movies—one echoed by many others—is probably that these films have all started to feel and look so same-y. Sure, you’ve got your minor tweaks here and there; one’s a 70s conspiracy-thriller homage, another’s a kicky space opera (well, several are). But they all pretty much stick to the same form. The latest entry in this sprawling saga, Ryan Coogler’sBlack Panther, arrives, then, as a welcome refreshment, adding mythic tones and chords of classical drama to the Marvel Universe.
Of course, Black Panther is also a nice change of pace—and hopefully a new precedent setter—in that its cast is largely black, with many women who are given a chance to be heroes. Black Panther champions, and makes champions of, underserved demographics in a way that’s somehow both casual and defiant, a statement of strength that proudly insists it needed no stating to begin with. Coogler has assembled a crackerjack team of actors to be the vessels of that message—a spirited ensemble that deftly maneuvers the movie’s shifts between high drama and amiable humor.
Chadwick Boseman, as T’Challa, warrior king of the secretive African nation of Wakanda, holds the center of the film with regal gravity. But as is often the case with leads, everyone around him gets to have more fun. Michael B. Jordan marks his third fruitful collaboration with Coogler as the movie’s villain, Erik Killmonger, a lost son of Wakanda who’s never known his ancestral homeland. He’s full of the rage and pain of an abandoned child finally getting his revenge on the world now that he’s grown.
Jordan tears into the role, complicating all the character’s evildoing with an aching pathos. By the end of the film, we’ve come to sympathize with poor Killmonger, whose mission is both compellingly political and deeply personal. (More on those politics in a moment.) Past those warring kinsmen, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira ably play two fierce fighters loyal to T’Challa’s cause. Coogler is careful to give them more than just sidekick stuff, and they have a winning chemistry together. I’d happily watch them lead the next Black Panther movie (for there will be another one), if Boseman wants a break.
Hopefully they’d take Letitia Wright along with them. As T’Challa’s brainy kid sister and gadget supplier (she’s Q to his James Bond), Wright bounces off with every scene she’s in, providing many of the film’s biggest laughs with sprightly, piquant charm. She eventually gets out of the lab and into the action, a show of this film’s egalitarian approach to its characters. Everyone gets to do their part, from Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s proud mother, to Daniel Kaluuya as a shifty ally to Andy Serkis as a side villain who lands some good, oddball jokes. Coogler’s script, co-written with Joe Robert Cole, generously provides texture to each of its roles.
It also gives us in the audience a lot to think about. Black Panther is in some ways a fantasy, and in others very much grounded in the real world. Looking at social justice and foreign policy through its Afrofuturist lens, the film also does something most Avengers films don’t. Many of those other movies are about what these heroes can stop, thwart, and in some cases destroy. They’ve fought over that call to power over and over again. But Black Panther is about what Wakanda and its resources—technology, chiefly—can provide the world, not what it can shield or take away. The film stages an interesting debate about Wakanda’s isolationism—its tradition of self-preservation over global outreach. Both sides make good points, an ambivalence the film handles smartly.
It also doesn’t shy away from the fraught question being posed about what responsibility Wakanda has to the broader—white, colonial—world. Killmonger would say that what’s owed is a reckoning, a violent and necessary reshifting of power. T’Challa instead warily sees the potential benefit of peaceful outreach, of sharing ideas to heal past and current wounds. It’s complicated stuff, and not anything that Coogler offers an easy answer for. Watching these issues mulled over in a big superhero spectacular is quite something—it elevates the level of Marvel’s political discourse considerably.
But this is still a Marvel movie—and as is often the case, Black Panther is at its weakest the bigger and sloppier its action scenes get. As he showed in Creed’s stunning boxing sequences, Coogler has a fine command of kinetic energy. A car chase in Busan, South Korea, has a dizzy, zipping grace to it, punctuated with perhaps the movie’s best sight gag. But when Black Panther is forced to go more maximalist than that—there must be a final showdown, of course—it loses its personality, as is true of most of these movies. They’re guided by capable, interesting directors, until they have to shoot the big stuff for the trailer. Ah, well.
Black Panther works best as a dynastic drama, and as a musing on global politics from a perspective we don’t often get. Despite familiar action-scene wobbliness, it’s easily the most engaging Marvel film in a long while. Because—finally!—it has something new to say. More like this please, Marvel. Oh, and, of course: Wakanda forever.
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