Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Review by Mike DeAngelo:
Even for a company that redefines the superhero genre time after time, Black Panther is a BIG swing that looks like it’s going to be paying off in spades for Marvel, just as it did with the comic book launch of the character in the midst of the civil rights movement. And just as it was then, the film couldn’t come at a better time. Make no mistake, this movie is meant to make a statement just as much as it’s meant to entertain – and Black Panther does both well.
I’ll admit that, even as an avid superhero nut, I’m not as well-versed with the Black Panther universe as others. I mainly knew of him from crossovers where he would appear alongside other Avengers. The good news is, as with all Marvel films, that doesn’t matter. Along with the new, they keep some of the old for people to grasp on to, creating a world that feels strikingly new and unique while also coming across as mildly familiar – like a brand new, warm, Marvel-branded blanket. For the most part, the movie succeeds at all it looks to achieve, but there are some speed-bumps throughout that keep it from perfection.
As this is a spoiler-free review, I’ll keep the details light. Just know that it picks up basically right where Captain America: Civil War left T’Challa – returning home after the death of his father, the former king of Wakanda, to assume his vacant throne and all of the responsibilities that come along with it. As with their other recent films (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, & Thor: Ragnarok), Black Panther gives us a view of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from a completely new angle, making everything feel fresh again. Thankfully, they know enough to keep this origin story focused on T’Challa, and not invite the distraction other MCU characters may bring with them.
Director Ryan Coogler proved his ability to helm bigger films while maintaining a focus on character with 2015’s Creed. Of all the left-field directorial choices Marvel has made, Ryan made complete sense to me, having seen all of his work to-date. It was clear the young director was on a trajectory to make something huge. With Black Panther, his sleek directorial style still remains. He continues to put together impressive action that’s supported by fully-realized characters…and oh my, are there some great characters here.
The biggest of the many things this film has going for it is the outstanding and groundbreaking cast. Even in comparison to other fairly stacked casts within the MCU, this Black Panther cast is one hell of a MARVEL to behold. Chadwick set the tone in Civil War, but his supporting cast absolutely raises the bar here. Even more impressively, the women that surround T’Challa are some of the most fully realized and amazing supporting cast members in the MCU. Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) plays Okoye, the astoundingly badass General to T’Challa’s all-female guard unit. Lupita Nyong’o gives a wide-ranging and nuanced performance as Nakia, who is not just a love-interest, but a fully-realized spy/badass/philanthropist with her own opinions and motivations that exist separately from T’Challa. Leticia Wright’s Suri, the genius sister of King T’Challa, is another stand-out who fills the role of resident Wakandan Tech Wiz with energy and hilarious quirkiness. Together they almost steal the movie right out from under T’Challa himself and could all surely sustain full feature-length films of their own.
Somehow, even beyond those characters, there are even more stand-outs. Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Winston Duke, and Angela Bassett somehow all get their moments to shine in an already packed film.
And then there’s the villain, Erik Killmonger, played to perfection by Michael B. Jordan. Since the beginning, a consistent critique of Marvel films was that the villains were just not very good…or just didn’t live up to Loki. Many weren’t mustache-twisting villains that were just evil for evil’s sake – but they often weren’t given much time to prove that they were much more than that. I would say Marvel has really turned things around recently, but Killmonger is certainly a stand-out. The way he’s written, it’s easy to understand his motivations, but Michael B. Jordan’s performance makes you instantly drawn to him and easily sympathetic to him. Jordan takes a good character and makes him great – and, as they say, a movie is only as good as its villain.
With that said, I will openly admit that Black Panther is not a perfect film. The first fifteen minutes are a bit off, writing and performance-wise. My biggest gripe; however, is with the amount of blatant expository dialogue in the film. For the uninitiated, exposition is where the characters quite plainly explain things so the general audience can follow along. Some superhero movies do this better than others – the Russo Brothers try to use as little as possible or try to sneak it in a little more organically. Sadly, most of the exposition – and there is quite a bit – feels like the first draft dialogue of what needs to be conveyed. Some moviegoers may not notice it, but to me it’s like nails on a chalkboard.
Also, not that you need surprises, but those waiting for big twists will likely leave disappointed, as the movie goes pretty much where you’d expect, beat for beat. I have no issue with this, but I can certainly understand people criticizing Black Panther for being predictable, plot-wise. The good news is that there’s so much amazing world building and characters to distract you from this fact. Even more importantly, the statements Black Panther makes throughout the film on colonialism, war, cultural fear, and racial-minority struggles are extremely timely and important – making this the rare blockbuster that has something to say beyond just entertaining you.
In the end, the balance of spectacle, laughs, and a genuine message make Black Panther something outstanding to behold. It feels completely unique, and still fits well within the ever-more diverse Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a film that will undoubtedly make a huge impact socially, as it’s the first of its kind in respect to its subject matter and diverse cast. Beyond that, it’s a story filled with characters and a world you want to see more of. Not only does Marvel have another winner on its hands, it has a new part of the universe that could become its future. Long live Wakanda, and, if they keep churning out films like this, long live the MCU.