Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danae Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman
My dissatisfaction with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as whole has been well-documented over the years, so believe me when I say “Black Panther” is not only the best MCU film to date but just one of the best comic book movies ever period.
It cures so many of the problems I’ve had with this series in this film while simultaneously standing on its own as a truly distinctive take on the super hero film genre.
(Also Victor Oladipo if you’re going to put on a Black Panther mask for the dunk contest you best not miss on your first attempt next time haha)
It’s a movie that not only is truly enjoyable on a physical and emotional level but also feels relevant in the kind of age we live in.
“Black Panther” takes place a week after the events of “Captain America: Civil War” as Prince T’Challa dons the crown of his late father T’Chaka to become the new king of the secretive futuristic African society of Wakanda. As the world continues to change around him T’Challa ponders if his kingdom should change with it. When an old enemy of Wakanda resurfaces in South Korea selling vibranium on the black market, T’Challa assembles a team to stop him while resuming the mantle of the Black Panther.
This is one of those rare occasions where I’m going to write a long-winded review that is NOT hyper critical of the movie, so a fair warning now that this will be a long read and contain a few spoilers.
You’ve been warned.
(Complainers will subjected to Princess Shuri’s sass.)
A Superhero Film that Matters
Part of the reason I’m not as harsh on the X-Men franchise as everyone else is that the good ones (and I guess even the bad ones) have strong relevant messages intertwined within them.
Unless you’re stupid and/or willfully ignorant, it’s pretty obvious what X-Men is about between the fear mongering against mutants, forced “conversion” therapy and outright hatred exhibited toward the X-Men and their people so I won’t get too far into it.
(“Mother says I’m not allowed to watch X-Men movies cause they’re sinful…”)
I like seeing socially relevant topics pop up in my super hero films, it makes the stories feel more real to me and makes them more relevant to society. Having a straight good vs evil story is fine and dandy too but when your series spans 10 years and now 18 movies, that kind of messaging at the very least becomes repetitive.
It’s part of the reason “Winter Soldier” for most fans (at least until now) was considered the best one because it pretty clearly takes jabs at unchecked governmental surveillance and how as Cap describes it “…is not freedom. That’s fear” and thus makes a stronger more relevant story.
(You hear that congress??)
“Black Panther” follows this same vein of message based story-telling, using the supernatural and fanciful world of cat suit wearing heroes and space age technology to present a real message about social inequality, building bridges and the responsibility of privilege.
At times this messaging can be explicit in the film between Killmonger angrily calling out the Wakandan’s on their isolationist ways and leaving “their people” behind and T’Challa’s message to the UN at the end of the film, which unless you live under a rock is pretty clearly directed at a certain “president.”
(“And furthermore I would also like to add I have a huuuuge hands. Just wanted to say that for no particular reason. None whatsoever.”)
Director Ryan Coogler weaves this messaging perfectly between the action, humor and brilliant cinematography of the film to create a story that feels conscious of the real world outside the movie theaters. The MCU’s largely action comedy approach has become mind-numbingly tedious lately (especially with a couple of the entries from last year) and while they may be decent single-event, popcorn outings at the movies every year, they don’t make you think a whole lot after the credits roll (or care either for that matter).
That approach would not have worked at all with this film; sure there are some good laugh out loud moments in this movie, but on the whole the film trusts that its audience will listen to a story first instead of bashing them over the head with a punchline every two minutes.
It doesn’t feel manufactured for a change and the result is a truly organic film with a powerful message on social and racial empowerment that I feel will remain meaningful and most of all relevant for ages to come.
Killmonger: Finally, A Villain Worth Caring About
Perhaps one of the weakest things about the MCU series is that the villains have been largely forgettable (and just so we’re on the same page, I’m not including the TV series in this discussion). Other than Loki, Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier, Civil War’s Zemo and to a much smaller extent Vulture, few if any of this series’ villains stick out in each movie beyond being just hammy evil guys (or girls in the case of Hela).
Malekith? Boring. Yellow Jacket? One dimensional. Ultron? Convoluted. Whiplash? Don’t get me started.
(Iron Monger? Zzzzz. Red Skull? Mustache twirler. Who? *in Steve Rodgers voice* I can do this all day.)
The point is the MCU’s rogues’ gallery has been laughable for the most part outside of a few gems. These movies don’t take much time to develop them beyond being just evil. It makes the conflicts in these films less interesting and again monotonous.
“Black Panther” changes this by creating not just a charismatic villain in Killmonger but one where we understand what makes him tick and to a certain extent even sympathize with him.
The best bad guys in any series usually (not always) have human qualities to them that make them relatable and sympathetic. Using the MCU’s best examples, Loki has a daddy complex and brotherly jealously, Vulture just wants to safe keep his family (A light version of Walter White if you will), and Zemo is guided by a need for vengeance over the death of his family by the Avengers.
(See, Loki is very relateable here in that Hulk is life smashing you into the ground over and over again.)
These films don’t ask us to like them but they do ask us to understand where they’re coming from and for Killmonger we sympathize with him for the injustice he’s seen as a boy and the death of his father who was only trying to help those in need. We see his outrage, we feel it and though his methods are terrible, we get why he’s angry.
In this way the film brilliantly shifts the villainy upon T’Challa’s late father and the responsibility in the creation of Killmonger, adding to the film’s already strong message of social responsibility.
(Honestly, if you really think about it, this is the real villain of the film right here.)
The movie understands, especially in the context of the social justice themes it presents, that villains often times aren’t born villainous; they are created by villainous acts. If you don’t understand (or willfully choose not to understand) what this means in the real world, I don’t know what to tell you.
Michael B. Jordan does a fantastic job as this character and carries every scene he’s in brilliantly even making me a bit misty-eyed when he visits his father in the ancestral plain, something that has never happened for me in this series, let alone any other comic book movie.
(Not to mention he had some dope fight scenes.)
While comparing him to “The Dark Knight’s” Joker, as some critics have done, is a bit much, Jordan’s performance is arguably one of the best since that time too and truly rights one of the biggest problems of the MCU, creating an iconic villainous performance in a series that has largely lacked this quality.
The Dope Ass Music
Even more so than the lack of good villains, one of the most consistently infuriating and criminally bad things about the MCU has always been the music.
Yes, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: Ragnarok” made nice usage of greatest hits from the 70′s – 90’s but I’m talking original music here; music specifically made for the movie to play up the drama, the action and pure emotion and the MCU has been AWFUL at this for the most part. Even the previously strong entries of the series “Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” were painfully bad here at times and for super hero films that’s a big problem. “Avengers” yes had a good single theme but what can you remember of the rest of that score?
Without even showing you clips from other comic book movies I guarantee if I mentioned the word “Batman” either Danny Elfman’s 1989 score or Hans Zimmer’s own from 2004 pops into your head immediately. Hell, as bad as the DCEU has been if I say “Superman” you’ll probably start humming that beautiful piano theme from the movie too.
(And that’s the only nice thing I’m going to say about the DCEU right now. Sorry, Supes…)
Music (or even a lack of, such as “No Country for Old Men”) dictates tone in a movie and can give a scene weight that it wouldn’t have had otherwise and this series rarely has done much with it.
Music is important to movies and it feels like it’s been often neglected in the MCU just to stick with tried and true formula of the previous movies because they know they’ll make money either way.
Luckily, Coogler didn’t follow this forumla (among many other aspects of this film’s production to its benefit), using original singles by Kendrick Lamar and The Weekend as well as a score from his longtime collaborative composer Ludwig Goransson.
(Seriously listen to this. Shit’s beautiful as fuck!)
For the first time in this series, original music doesn’t feel like it takes a back seat and instead it’s used to enhance scenes that were already good on their own and make them even better. The casino and chase scene in South Korea aren’t nearly as fun without the work of Lamar and The Weekend and journeys to the ancestral plain aren’t as emotional without the violin play of the orchestral score by Goransson. Wakanda feels alive and real largely because of the African music influences Goransson puts into his music here and it’s just beautiful to listen to.
Black Panther himself might be the first individual character in this series that actually gets theme music that plays with every entry he makes. Even Killmonger has a nice hip hop orchestral theme to his entries as well, not to mention a softer piece to describe his childhood.
Where was this in the other films, MCU? It’s criminal that Captain America really doesn’t have a theme song, and no, ACDC doesn’t count for Iron Man.
The themes Goransson uses plays frequently throughout the film keeping a thematic unison to the story that other films in this series, for the most part, simply don’t have.
The music will make you jump for joy as T’Challa and his friends leap into action and tear up during the story’s more emotional scenes as well and it’s such a breath of fresh air for a series that has seemingly neglected one of movies’ most important aspects to film-making.
The World of Wakanda
Much in the same way “Guardians of the Galaxy” fully fleshes out its fanciful sci-fi world with its brilliant costumes and set designs, “Black Panther” ups that to 11 with its own creative designs that combine Afro-futurism with traditional African culture.
The individual tribes all look distinct and most of all colorful and they stand out beautifully onscreen. At times it’s easy to lose track of the story because you get caught up in this world Coogler and his team help produce on screen but boy is it nice to look at.
It’s a world that you want to believe is real not just for the obvious empowerment message of the story but because it just looks so damn cool. I mean who wouldn’t want to fly a dragonfly shaped airship or get a virbanium stealth suit like Black Panther or hell, have a contingent of king’s guards armed with those super spears dressed in those astonishing red armored uniforms?
(Seriously! Look at these badasses. They look fly as fuck!)
Credit to Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer, for helping bring this world of Wakanda to life because the film truly benefits from her outstanding work here.
While Chadwick Boseman is again great as T’Challa, as he was in “Civil War,” it’s the ensemble cast of the film that truly steal the show.
Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright play the parts of Nakia, General Okoye and T’Challa’s sassy sister Shuri, respectively, brilliantly throughout the movie. They play off each other and Boseman perfectly providing great drama as well laugh out loud humor and levity that makes the film flow perfectly from scene to scene.
Even as T’Challa takes a brief break from the film in the third act, the movie never feels like it slows down and that’s largely because we care about these other characters so much that even without T’Challa onscreen we’re still invested in what happens next for these characters.
(Also note to Joss Whedon: This is what real strong female characters look like.)
Nyong’o’s Nakia provides the story’s central theme about privilege and responsibility while being more than just a love interest to T’Challa. Okoye is arguably more badass than Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman last year, kicking ass and taking names in each scene she’s in, and Shuri is not just comic relief but a willing fighter in her own right and in many way’s this film’s Q to Black Panther’s James Bond.
The best part is these characters aren’t damsels in distress and they’re more than just muscle too; they’re well-developed, fun, strong female characters and in many ways even more interesting than the film’s titular hero himself.
There’s other more minor plus’s to this film such as Martin Freeman’s classic fish out water comic relief routine as Agent Ross and Andy Serkis’s brief yet nonetheless enjoyable performance as Klau but you get the idea here. This film is everything I could’ve hoped it to be and more and I’m so glad I wasn’t treated to same old generic action comedy blockbuster routine that most of the rest of the series is known for.
There are some minor problems with the plot here too such as Killmonger’s plan before entering Wakanda not completely adding up, some of the CGI action sequences aren’t great looking and as mentioned it would’ve been nice to see more of Serkis’s Klau in the movie but these problems feel so inconsequential to the whole here that I really don’t feel the need to delve too deeply into them.
“Black Panther” truly stands on its own as not just the best MCU film to date by a wide margin but one of the best comic book movies ever period. It goes above and beyond what much of the series has been through in its decade long existence while curing many of recurring problems as well.
This will be a tough act to follow and I’m not sure if anything, other than a sequel for this character, will be able to top it. I’m just glad we’ll get to see T’Challa and Wakanda again in “Infinity War” this summer.
Hopefully Thanos goes easy on it.
5 out of 5
Good luck trying to one up this one, “Infinity War”….WAKANDA FOREVER!