Cinema: Marvel's 'Black Panther' Is a Thoughtful, Thrilling Extravaganza
At ten years and eighteen films in counting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the biggest franchises in history. They’ve practically defined the latest generation of moviegoers with classics like Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention the larger Avengers films, which have become events in their own right. With such consistent exposure, however, Marvel’s ability to keep their characters fresh and exciting grows increasingly difficult. There is only so many times we can watch a masked hero defeat a villain with a CGI army before we start to grow weary.
Black Panther aims to tinker with this formula internally, rather than externally. On the surface, the film is glossy and stylish, hitting all the prerequisite MCU tropes, but the tact of writer/director Ryan Coogler gives it a unique trim. As evidenced by his previous works, the tragic Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff, Creed, Coogler is adept at telling stories that address social issues without sacrificing their entertainment value. Black Panther is by far his biggest challenge to date, and he manages to translate his earnest sensibilities in ways that are both subtly poignant and consistently exciting.
The film picks up days after the events of Captain America: Civil War, where we met the titular hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Reeling from the death of his father, he returns to the African nation of Wakanda to be sworn in as its new king. This is of much greater importance than the rest of the world realizes. In a neat twist, Wakanda is revealed to be a technological utopia, a nation who, out of a desire for self-preservation, has maintained the guise of being a third world country. Better to be scoffed at than be corrupted by outsiders. T’Challa is happy to uphold this tradition, but those closest him, like his former flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) suggest they could, and should do more. “Wakanda is strong enough to help others and protect ourselves at the same time,” she reasons.
This ethical dilemma drives the film, particularly as the villains embody the sort of threats that T'Challa is trying to keep out. The first is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a South African arms dealer who breached Wakanda’s mines back in the 1990s and aims to do so again. Klaue is the depravity of white colonization made literal, and Serkis brings such manic energy to the role that its a joy to root against him. The second, and infinitely more complex, is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a black ops soldier who, through plot points that will go unspoiled, threatens T’Challa’s status as king. He sees it as Wakanda’s duty to liberate African people throughout the world, to share the wealth and comfort they have kept to themselves for so long.
Killmonger provides Marvel with one of its most textured villains. Hailing from Oakland, California, he's been subjected to racism and poverty his entire life. His revolutionary plans stem from this place of resentment, but also a real world idealism that T'Challa, the pensive Martin Luther King to his angry Malcolm X, comes to sympathize with. Neither is completely right or wrong. Jordan, who's now appeared in all of Coogler's films, has never been more charismatic than he is here, leaving traces of tenderness throughout an otherwise menacing performance. His adversary, Boseman, is given less flashy material to play with, but he too excels, accentuating T'Challa's fear as he takes a crown for which he feels unprepared. Their final battle, which can often times be written off as anticlimactic in these sorts of movies, is rewritten as a devastating struggle between like-minded brothers, bound by the sins of their fathers. In moments like these, Coogler's singular vibrancy practically bursts out of the screen.
On a purely visceral level, Black Panther boasts some of the best fight scenes this side of The Winter Soldier. Instances where T’Challa defends his throne via hand-to-hand combat are superb, as we're made to feel the sting of every blow and broken bone. The brutality here, particularly in the second fight, is nicely contrasted by the splendor of the surrounding city, which Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison decorate with bright colors, inventive tech, and an amalgamation of real African designs. It is at once welcoming and elusive, the perfect aesthetic for a culture that's reluctant to join the rest of the world.
That’s not to say the film is without flaw. In contrast to Marvel’s last effort, Thor: Ragnarok, which sacrificed drama for laughs, Black Panther’s weakest moments occur when it tries to shoehorn humor into the rich tapestry that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have weaved. T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the biggest culprit, as some of her quips clash with the formal Wakandan culture, and others seem awkwardly out of touch with western millennial culture. Dated cracks about Soundcloud and the “What are those!?” meme should not be in a film released in 2018. They just shouldn't. Thankfully, the bad jokes lessen as the story goes on, leading me to believe (or at least, hope) that they will be less prevalent in the inevitable sequel.
Black Panther doesn’t reinvent the Marvel movie like many have been quick to proclaim, but rather, it finds creative pockets within the studio's pre-existing model. It is, after all, a story about a man who dresses up like a cat to fight crime, and Coogler's number one directive at the end of the day is to make both the man and the cat suit look cool. He does. He just happens to impart a touching, timely message along the way.