Black Panther is, on paper, one of the riskiest Marvel movies to date. Featuring no established star as a supporting cast member (Tony Stark in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Falcon in Ant-Man) and a character that the general film audience probably has limited experience with, it would be easy to set the bar low for Black Panther‘s box office appeal. But the exact opposite has happened; the film is on track to have, potentially, the biggest opening of any superhero film.
Having seen the film, I can confidently say: it deserves all the hype it is getting. Black Panther belongs in the upper echelon of superhero films, and succeeds on just about every level. Keep reading for our spoiler-free review.
The first thing that needs to be said about Black Panther is that is absolutely unapologetic in what it is. This movie is undoubtedly Afrocentric and unabashedly feminist. Aside from the characters speaking English, there is almost nothing in this film that feels like a half-measure from Marvel Studios in terms of the tone or content of the film. Every decision made appears made for the success of this film, not for establishing a piece of an overarching franchise.
Because of his supporting role in Captain America: Civil War, the film is able to shed a bit of its origin-centric story, though the first 45 minutes are still spent establishing who T’Challa is, what Wakanda is, and what the film is really going to be about. The opening scene of the film acts as a catch up on Wakanda and its history, and by the time that scene is over, you’ve got essentially all you need to follow the story, whether or not you saw Civil War.
Director/co-writer Ryan Cooger establishes the film within its first 20 minutes as something we’ve never really seen before. While the film probably has less CGI-heavy battles than any other Marvel film thus far, the visual look of the film is absolutely stunning. Wakanda is technologically advanced, but never loses its African feel. It contains a city full of truly amazing tools, but hasn’t sold its soul to the monolithic skyscrapers and asphalt of the Western world. The country feels both incredibly futuristic, but also rooted in the past; it is, perhaps, the most impressive part of the film.
Of all the computer generated tunnels and weaponry, there was only one scene in the film where the special effects were lacking. That was, surprisingly, a simple sequence of people gathered on a cliff, overlooking a waterfall. The cliff face, with its various sitting spots, didn’t match up with the people sitting/standing on it. Obviously, Marvel isn’t going to let extras actually sit on a dangerous geographic structure, so I can’t fault it, but it is funny how holograms made out of sand worked far better than very simple background creation.
T’Challa is told in the film that it is hard to be a good man and a good king, and while it may sound silly, T’Challa might be the best person we’ve seen as a Marvel hero on screen thus far. There does not appear to be a selfish or vindictive bone in his body, and this is a good thing. He’s closest in tone to Steve Rogers, but mainly avoids the Boy Scout, aw shucks attitude that Steve sometimes has. They are also both natural leaders, and it seems likely that, if Chris Evans wants out, Chadwick Boseman would make a fine focal point for the next generation of Avengers films.
Boseman is really great here, though he doesn’t necessarily leap off the screen the way some other performers do in the film. His T’Challa is balanced and measured, as quick to listen as he is to speak, and obviously takes the role of King quite seriously. The performance does have nuance however, especially expressed when T’Challa must grapple with Wakanda’s role in the larger world.
But make no mistake, this film is owned by his co-stars, specifically his female ones. Letitia Wright got the single largest laugh in the theater with her line delivery of “what are those?,” a seemingly innocuous line that had the screening erupt in belly laughter. Her performance of Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, is one of the most important pieces of the film, as she is able to act as technological exposition for all the insane Wakanda tech, without it coming off as dull or forced. She is so light and carefree in her performance, that technical specs of various suits and tools roll off her tongue.Continued below
Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is both the moral center of the film and its romantic interest, and neither of those positions gets disrupted during the film. From the moment she appears on screen, you can see why T’Challa loves her, but she is never reduced to just the pretty face or the one in need of rescuing. If anything, she, along with Danai Gurira, take on the more traditional heroic roles for a good chunk of the film. While T’Challa is clearly the lead role, Nakia and Okoye are right behind him.
While the film is very attuned to the African experience, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger represents the very different experience of being black in the United States. Without getting into spoiler territory, Killmonger has lived a very solitary life, a life that feels absent from his destiny. T’Challa is the converse of that; he’s always been a part of something. Both are defined by their surroundings, but in absolutely opposite ways. Jordan oozes rage and longing at the same time, and is the mercurial yang to Boseman’s composed yin.
Of all the Marvel films, this reminds me most of Thor, in that its job is to establish not just a character, but an entire society around itself. But while Thor felt a little by the numbers and simple, Black Panther dives into the deep end. I feel like I know more about Wakanda from one film than I do about Asgaard from three, and while there may not be a breakout supporting character a la Loki, I want to see all of these characters again and again. If there was ever a film that demanded a television series to accompany it, it is this one. I want to spend as much time in Wakanda as I can.
But more than Thor, Black Panther has a central thesis that is more universal and nuanced than any superhero film you’ve ever seen. The entire film hinges around the conflict of protecting that which you love versus sharing what you have to improve the lives of many. In a time when income disparity is at its highest in recent memory, it is a question that feels incredibly prescient today, and makes the film more overtly political than, I think, was intended. Not that Cooger is shying away from the political ramifications of the story, but the world, especially the United States and Great Britain, has changed so much since the screenplay for this film was written.
I haven’t even mentioned the moving flashback sequence (that, coincidentally, made me feel incredibly old, as it took place in the early 90s, a time I remember very well, which is now foreign enough to merit flashbacks), the various tribes within Wakanda, the great Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker performances, how this may be the most beautiful cast ever assembled for a blockbuster film, the killer soundtrack, or the surprising amount of humor in the film. This is as complete a movie as Marvel has ever made, with a very concrete beginning, middle, and end. And while one of the post-credits scenes (there are 2, one mid-credits, one at the end) hints at something to come, the film seems only vaguely concerned with being part of the MCU. In a time of perpetual second acts of multi-part sagas, thank goodness Black Panther wants to be its own thing.
That thing might just be the best Marvel movie yet.