Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Black Panther, the newest solo debut film for a Marvel superhero, is a superhero movie that does not feel like a superhero movie. And I mean that as a big complement to director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed and Fruitvale Station) and his team. The production design is tremendous, the acting is really good and it has been very well-directed and reasonably well-paced (though it does still feel a little long at 122 minutes plus the requisite post-credits scenes). The story still has some rough edges, but it is the first Marvel film I have seen that feels like it has real stakes (granted, I have only seen a few). The hero and his way of life feel legitimately threatened which adds a tension usually lacking from these films. That makes the climactic scenes more exciting. Black Panther is, without a doubt, the best Marvel film I have seen so far and the best superhero movie I have seen in a long time.
The hero is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Thurgood Marshall in last year’s Marshall) who, as the film opens, is being primed to become king of the isolated nation of Wakanda after the death of his father. Wakanda is thought to be a small farming country and its true nature is only known to those who live there. The exception is arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis, a wizard at motion capture who portrayed Snoke in The Last Jedi and Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes). T’Challa goes on a mission to capture Klaue in an overly lengthy subplot that seems unnecessary, but does serve to setup the plot. There are too many twists and turns for me to discuss the plot without getting into spoiler territory, so I will just say that it involves a vengeful character played by Michael B. Jordan (who starred in both of Coogler’s previous directorial efforts), the best thing in a very good film.
There are many good things about Black Panther. To start with, Wakanda is an amazing sight. Its mixture of incredible technological advancements into the tribal lifestyle of its people is very cool. They embrace the future while strongly respecting their past. This is shown in their customs and their clothing as well as the city. It really is a unique production for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that it is on our world, but does not feel of our world. There are a few sequences set in other countries that are jarring because they have a grimy, street level quality to them that is not present in Wakanda. Wakanda is supposed to be a royal nation and it feels that way. These people present themselves to the rest of the world as third-world farmers. The way Coogler and his team offset that idea with the technology that is only present in Wakanda is unique and beautiful.
This is by far the biggest and most ambitious film Coogler has directed so far. He went from an intimate true-life drama (2013’s Fruitvale Station) to a character based sports movie (2015’s Creed) to a massive action film with complex sets and a very large cast. With Black Panther he proves himself extremely capable of directing a film of this size without sacrificing character or emotion. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole and, unlike a lot of Marvel’s films, they keep the story fairly self-contained. Not only does that make it easier to follow (especially for someone like me, who has not seen all of their movies), it also makes T’Challa’s story seem more important. It comes off as a matter of life and death for the people of Wakanda instead of merely a small piece of a much larger puzzle.
They also do more for their actors than just surround them with special effects. They assembled a very strong cast and allow them to play their parts. Chadwick Boseman brings power and pride to a man who wants to honor his father and protect his people. Michael B. Jordan brings layers to his villain. His motivations are surprisingly relatable. Martin Freeman (Bilbo from The Hobbit trilogy) reprises his role as CIA agent Ross, while Forest Whitaker (a Best Actor Oscar winner in 2007 for The Last King of Scotland) and Daniel Kaluuya (a current Best Actor Oscar nominee for Get Out) play Wakandans. And that is just the men.
The woman are given an important part to play in this story as well. Lupita Nyong’O ( a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave) as T’Challa’s ex, Nakia, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira as his guard, Okoye, and Letitia Wright as his brilliant sister Shuri are all smart, strong and heroic. Okoye is the toughest character in the movie, Nakia the most noble and Shuri the smartest. She is also the funniest and gets some of the best lines. They are joined by Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda, who gives her usual solid performance in an underwritten role.
Black Panther may be a Marvel comic book superhero movie, but it feels like something new. The problems I tend to have with superhero movies, a dull villain, repetitive action scenes and the feeling that nothing is really at stake, are turned into strengths here. The villain is really intriguing, buoyed by a characteristically great performance from Michael B. Jordan. And the stakes are no less than the fate of Wakanda, which makes the action seem more important. My big complaint with superhero movies in general is that they all seem basically the same. Black Panther feels like the answer to that. It is a superhero movie for people who do not think they like superhero movies.
4 out of 5
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa
Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger
Lupita Nyong’O as Nakia
Danai Gurira as Okoye
Letitia Wright as Shuri
Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross
Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi
Angela Bassett as Ramonda
Forest Whitaker as Zuri
Andy Serkis as Klaue
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole