Black Panther and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Ryan Coogler
It’s time once again for the Marvel Money Machine to give us all yet another excuse to give Disney ten more dollars of our hard earned cash to people with super powers in profoundly silly costumes punch each other between humorous quips and callbacks to previous films! The sooner we declare Marvel release dates to be national holidays the better off we’ll all be (who DOESN’T like getting a Friday off!?), but until then the film critics must continue to go to the multiplexes, sit for two and a half hours as the lights and sounds dazzle our senses, and then tell you what you already know; namely that these are still good and that you’ll spend your money on it no matter what! Now as cynical as this never ending cycle of unimaginable profits can seem, it STILL manages to keep its head above water at least with critics by having that one thing that many other blockbuster franchises DON’T have. What was it? Oh right! Talent. With pretty much every one of these films, Disney went the extra mile of hiring talented and sought after filmmakers to play around with their billion dollar toys, and so far we’ve had a near perfect success rate! Okay, Jon Favreau didn’t QUITE capture lightening in a bottle twice with Iron Man 2 and there was the whole Ant-Man debacle with Edgar Wright, but for the most part they’ve had a good eye for picking out talent; especially considering they got Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame to start his blockbuster career with them. Will this be a monumental addition to an already astronomically successful franchise, or… well okay, there’s no chance this is gonna be BAD, but will it be… MEDIOCRE!? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins not long after Captain America: Civil War (so… presumably BEFORE Spider-Man Homecoming?) where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is returning home to Wakanda to be crowned king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). Here, we all the important people in his life including his mother (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his top general and most dependable ass kicker Okoye (Danai Gurira), and an accomplished spy for the Wakandan military Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. Anyway, we spend some time with T’Challa as he’s getting used to the heavy burden bestowed upon him, but he doesn’t have much time to adjust as Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) from all the way back in Age of Ultron has resurfaced and is still on Wakanda’s shit list for stealing Vibranium like twenty years ago. With this chance at capturing one of Wakanda’s greatest enemies, T’Challa suits up to take the mantel of Black Panther once more and even takes Okoye and Nakia for backup. Things don’t go quite as planned however as the CIA operative from Civil War, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) is onto Klaue as well, and Klaue seems to be working with a guy that REALLY has a grudge against Wakanda and is known simply as Killmonger (Michael B Jordan). Can T’Challa unravel the mysteries before him, and will he like the answers that he finds? What are these ruthless villains planning that could endanger Wakanda and the rest of the world with it? How exactly does he breathe in that thing if it doesn’t even have a mouth hole!?
I’d say that this is about as good as we come to expect from Marvel movies; maybe even a touch better than most. It’s got everything you’d want out of these films and even some new surprises here and there, but it’s not what I’d call a revelation for the franchise. That’s not a bad thing though because being one of the better films in one of the biggest entertainment entities in the world (second only to Star Wars with that gap narrowing every year) is an accomplishment that any other studio would be salivating for (*cough* DC *cough*), and even if it’s not THE BEST one in the series, it’s still probably the most important one yet. Hidden Figures wasn’t the first movie about discrimination in the workplace or how awesome space travel and math are, Get Out isn’t the pinnacle of social commentary horror films, and I wouldn’t say that I liked this as much as say Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, or the first Guardians of the Galaxy, but the mere fact that this EXISTS is a triumph in and of itself and like Hidden Figures and Get out, it fills a space that simply hadn’t existed in their respective genres up to that point; at least not to a significant extent. Perhaps we should have gotten a big crowd pleasing action film with this kind of cast some time ago (Red Tails tried its damnedest to be that but couldn’t quite manage), but it’s still amazing to see so much African culture that we in the West take for granted being centered and celebrated in a film that is bound to be a worldwide juggernaut at the box office; one that will inspire a generation of kids as well as filmmakers who finally get to see themselves represented as noble, powerful, and heroic in a film that’s aimed at EVERYONE; not aimed at a BLACK AUDIENCE which still seems to be the marketing strategy many studios use whenever they make a film with a majority black cast. Now whether or not PROGRESS BROUGHT TO YOU BY DISNEY is the best way to amplify minority voices in the entertainment industry is certainly a discussion worth having, but I think that giving a director THIS talented free reign to make a movie THIS steeped in African culture on Disney’s dime AND turning it into an unimaginable success is certainly something of note at the very least.
To get the basics out of the way, yes this is another Marvel film with everything that entails. The movie looks great, the cast is very much game for the material, the action scenes are good, and the thing KIND of falls apart towards the end with a villain that doesn’t quite work. Seriously, I should just copy and paste that for every Marvel movie that comes out considering how little the formula, at least in its broad strokes, hasn’t really changed since the franchise’s inception. That’s still not a BAD thing though, even if the cracks show a little bit more and more with every successive film, because Ryan Coogler uses this formula to tell a story that we’ve never seen before in a blockbuster at this scale. Sure, it’s easy to just say that THE MOVIE IS BETTER BECAUSE IT GIVES MUCH NEEDED DIVERSITY TO THE WORLD OF BLOCKBUSTERS (which is absolutely true), but Ryan Coogler wasn’t content with simply remaking Iron Man or Thor with a black cast. Every frame of this movie is imbued with a sense of pride and confidence in the culture that it creates (which sadly I don’t have a frame of reference of to tell you if it’s accurate to any specific real world cultures) as it takes time out to show us the customs and traditions of the Wakandan people as well as how they’ve managed to advance technologically without the interference of colonialism and resource plundering from the West. Even with that though, Ryan Coogler knows enough to not make it a Utopia either and to make this about real people existing in this place instead of one dimensional caricatures of an idealized society; giving it a greater sense of depth as it doesn’t posit Wakanda as SO perfect as to be out of reach. Okay, the super technology that they have along with their hardline isolationist stance (how do they even have all the metal to make the computers and microchips or even enough FOOD if they have absolutely zero trade?) teeters on the edge of believability even within the Marvel Universe (or at least the Earth part of the Marvel Universe), but Wakanda works as a living breathing place for the movie to take place in, and more importantly it’s a GREAT concept for the film to center it’s ideas around, which may be the film’s greatest strength.
Aside from the diversity in the film and how important that is for representation, I think the best aspect of this movie is just how much gray area there is in this story and how much it forces you to think about what it means to be a leader and what your responsibility is to the rest of the world. Thor: Ragnarok did touch on this with Asgard having to reconcile its sketchy past along with the monster it helped create, but that was a bit straightforward and honestly too far in the background for it to have much of an impact on how I saw the film; at least compared to the coliseum stuff and The Valkyrie’s backstory. Here, even the idealized society within the heart of Africa that remained untouched by opportunistic western countries still cannot escape from having been led by fallible men and the decisions they have made leading to a moral rot within the country (and its nobility) with each successive generation. This is a country that has advanced technology well beyond what even Tony Stark has managed to come up with and is self-sustaining to the point of being miraculous, yet it’s still a monarchy led by a royal family and the country has a PRETTY big problem with toxic masculinity. Being the King of Wakanda is pretty much defined by how good you are at punching people as the throne can be challenged and won in a BATTLE TO THE DEATH ON A WATERFALL, which… I don’t know, that didn’t really work for me even if the film EVENTUALLY came around (at least somewhat) to that being an overwhelmingly silly way to choose a leader. The idea makes for a few okay action scenes, but it feels like someone should have realized the ridiculous consequences of this thing WAY before said consequences were staring them right in the face. Then again, we have the Electoral College over here in the states, so I guess we don’t have much of a leg to stand on. Still, that leads me to my one big criticism of the movie which is the way the villain is handled in the third act. For most of this movie, it does a FANTASTIC job of showing us the conflict within T’Challa (both as a king and as a man who just lost his father), but also giving us Killmonger’s side of the story as he advocates for Wakanda to not only reveal itself to the world but to arm the citizenry of oppressed nations so they can fight for their freedoms. Sure, he takes a PRETTY hard stance on that, up to and including straight up murder to get what he wants… but by the time we get to the third act he loses some of the nuance that made him not just compelling but an intelligent and charismatic force to be reckoned with. I won’t say the line here, but it’s VERY obvious the moment he says THIS SPECIFIC THING that the movie wants us to switch gears entirely to seeing him as possibly redeemable in the vein of Loki into a downright BAD GUYTM who needs to be stopped by any means. The issues he brings up are not ones with an easy answer, whether or not protection of one’s own people should outweigh the suffering of the rest of the world, and I applaud the film makers for having the nerve to even tackle the issue; but by the time we get to the BIG PUNCH UP at the end, it felt like the movie backed up a bit too far from it in order to make the final fight much less ambiguous and the ending easier to swallow.
Now I just spent a whole lot of this review talking about politics and representation, all of which are good things to talk about, but let’s talk about how good this movie blows stuff up! The action in the film is top notch as you’d expect from… what are we at? Fifty? Sixty Marvel films now? The sequence that stood out the most for me though was a side plot right in the middle of act two where the entire film turned into a freaking James Bond movie; and a really good one at that! Seriously, we’ve got a scene with T’Challa and Shuri where she’s basically playing Q, and a subsequent operation in a casino involving shady deals, ear piece communicators, and a big shootout followed by a car chase! It’s not really anything we HAVEN’T seen before as the action is probably most in line with a Captain America film, albeit with a few Iron Man style science perks, but then we’re ALSO dealing with the studio making the best PG-13 action scenes in Hollywood which means that they’re not over cluttered with annoying CGI nonsense (*cough* Transformers *cough*) or are weighed down by crappy hand held shaky came (*cough* pretty much everything else *cough*). The ending fight as well is rather impressive as the Black Panther suit allows for some seriously impressive set pieces without really breaking the suspension of disbelief as well as the rest of the cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurrira, and even Daniel Kaluuya, give the most they can to make the action look that much more impressive. Speaking of the cast, there really isn’t a weak link here which is yet another thing we’ve come to expect form Marvel. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa shows a whole lot of range here that he wasn’t really able to in Civil War considering he was strictly in revenge mode that whole movie, but then Michael B Jordan MIGHT just be the stand out as his story is easily the most compelling one here even if it doesn’t QUITE stick the landing at the end. Andy Serkis as one his allies and one of the few returning characters is MUCH more compelling in this than he was for the brief time he was in Age of Ultron, though Martin Freeman is probably the one weak link here if I had to choose one as he’s not a particularly compelling character and is kind of just along for the ride. He gets easily overshadowed by the rest of the supporting cast which includes Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, and Danai Gurira as the standouts and each one of them are interesting enough to get a whole movie in their own right; or at least a S.H.I.E.L.D. style spinoff show! Like Valkyrie, Black Widow, War Machine, and any number of other supporting characters in Marvel films, it frustratingly leaves you wanting more from these secondary characters knowing that they’re PROBABLY gonna stay out of the spotlight in subsequent films, but who knows? If Black Panther is a big enough hit, we may very well get a spinoff all about them in addition to a Black Panther sequel, though I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Either way, there’s not much to complain about here in terms of the cast as everyone was more than willing to throw everything they had into these larger than life characters who will certainly inspire as many people as Black Panther himself will.
Look, at this point it’s a done deal that pretty much all of you are going to go check this out at some point, and me gushing about it here isn’t really gonna swing those who are resistant to the Marvel Empire back to their side. Is it worth seeing in the theaters? Of course it is! You already knew that before you started reading this! Ultimately, I find it to be one of the more interesting films in the franchise on top of being the most diverse and daring films in the franchise up to this point, so while I certainly have a few complaints here and there about Wakandan politics and a less than stellar Martin Freeman performance, I have no problem telling all of you that it’s well worth your time and money… even if you really didn’t need me to tell you that. Seriously, why am I even still writing this? You’re probably seeing the movie right now!