"Black Panther" (2018) Review
It's a Marvel movie.
That needs to be said before diving into Black Panther, a film that has been at the center of one recent cinema's most intense hype trains. Black Panther has almost been a zeitgeist film that people have projected their expectations onto for one reason or another. For some, it's the first time Hollywood has earnestly put black men and women in front of and behind the camera for a major blockbuster film that attempts a high-budget visualization of afro-futurism. For others, it's one of Marvel's most high profile director picks with Ryan Coogler (director of Fruitvale Station and Creed) at the helm. For many people, it's going to be a combination of those two factors.
For almost every Marvel fan though, it's the follow through on one of the strongest debuts of a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War. Yes, we were all excited to see Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, but Black Panther's debut in that film was truly a sight to behold and set expectations for his solo film in the stratosphere. I'm laying that all out there to say that my expectations for Black Panther were ridiculously high, and I wanted it to be far more than a Marvel movie.
Disappointingly, it fits well within Marvel's formula. There's a villain who acts as a dark mirror to the hero, there's an epic car chase through a major metropolitan area, the literal sins of the father come back to haunt our hero, etc. But as I said in my Thor: Ragnarok review, the formula doesn't matter, it's what the director does with the formula that matters. I wanted Black Panther to live outside of that formula, but it doesn't and I have to accept that. Which leaves one major question:
So, how does Black Panther handle that formula?
It handles it really REALLY well.
Black Panther is one of the most standalone entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of any recent Marvel movie, it feels like the one that you could walk into without having seen a single Marvel movie before it. It's a huge point in the movie's favor, opting to build its own world inside the Marvel universe that feels effortless.
For the uninitiated, Black Panther is about Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) from the African nation of Wakanda. His father, King T'Chaka (John Kani), was recently killed in an explosion during the events of Captain America: Civil War, which forces T'Challa to take the throne. It's never easy being a king, but being the king of Wakanda is exceptionally difficult. Wakanda is secretly the most advanced civilization on Earth, due to the nation being located over a deposit of an incredible metal called vibranium that is almost invincible and has other incredible properties. Wakanda has kept itself from the world for the fear that if the world obtained its technology, it would be immediately misused with horrific consequences.
From there, the story unfolds into multiple genres, sometimes a spy film, sometimes a Shakespearean drama about royal blood, and all while still being a Marvel movie. The end result of blending these dramas is a massive cast of characters, each with interlocking motivations, and almost all of which are being debuted for the first time on film. Only a handful of these characters were in previous Marvel movies, so it's damn impressive how well Black Panther puts them all together. Yes, several characters don't get as much development as others, but all of them are introduced just enough here to work inside of the story (and I look forward to seeing them again in later movies, because let's face it, they're going to make another Black Panther movie, this thing is going to make all of the money for the next couple of weeks).
Among the massive supporting cast, the standouts definitely come in the form of Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's sister, and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who acts as the villain of the piece. Shuri steals every single scene she's in, a hilarious and brilliant character. She builds all of T'Challa's gadgets, including his Black Panther suit, and her performance is an instant star-making turn. You're going to be seeing Letitia Wright a lot more in the future, I guarantee it.
And then there's Killmonger. This is the one area where Black Panther lives outside of the Marvel formula. The Marvel formula tends to shove villains to the side in favor of developing the heroes more, and it's come at the cost of weak villains. Killmonger is easily the best villain in the Marvel movies, period. Yes, he beats out Loki. Loki has always been a fun villain, but beyond just being a trickster, he's not exactly an interesting villain in the idealogical sense.
Killmonger is an all-time comic book movie villain because of his philosophy, and by extension, some of the movie's complex ideas about race and oppression. The ideas in Black Panther about race have been explored in other films, but those films tend to be quiet indie dramas or Oscar bait, not a multi-million dollar superhero film. It's honestly shocking to see how many ideas Black Panther engages with, and how those ideas are directly linked to Killmonger's presence in the story. The last time a Marvel movie engaged with political and social ideas on this scale was Captain America: The Winter Soldier's fear versus freedom story about government surveillance, but Black Panther takes a harder set of ideas and makes gold out of them, talking about ideas of slavery and colonization all the way to the destabilizing of nations by the CIA (yes, really).
The best villains have some kernel of truth to what they preach, and you can't help but agree with Killmonger from scene to scene, even as he kills innocent people in his wake (the only reason I haven't mentioned Michael B. Jordan's performance is that we're talking about Michael B. Jordan and he's always fantastic and you can safely assume he's still fantastic here).
However, there's a cost to Killmonger being a great villain, and that cost is in the titular Black Panther himself.
There's no mistaking that this film is about T'Challa's journey to becoming a good king while wrestling with the past, but he's not even close to the most interesting character in his own story. To be fair, this is a problem I've had with some of the Batman films in the past, but in Black Panther it feels a bit more severe. Part of that is owed to how quiet Chadwick Boseman's performance is, playing his role as regal and understated as possible. He performs well and a few scenes of confrontation are incredibly powerful, but he feels overshadowed not only by Killmonger, but by other characters like Shuri and the head of his royal guard Okoye (Danai Gurira).
T'Challa is hardly a passive character in this story, but he's mostly reacting to events completely outside of his own decisions for the first half of the movie, which only sidelines him further. The other flaws that come to mind are in the form of some super dodgy digital effects shots (seriously, a few prominent shots look straight up unfinished) and one scene towards the beginning is shot practically in the dark to the point that it's damn near impossible to tell what's going on. The scene seems to be shot that way on purpose, but it's almost too disorienting for its own good.
That's where the flaws end though. Beyond a handful of visual effects shots, one scene's cinematography, and T'Challa not being as active in the plot until the second half, the movie excels in so many other areas that it retroactively makes other Marvel movies slightly worse. This is hands down the best art direction in a Marvel movie, with some of the most gorgeous world design, costumes, and make-up that I've seen in ages. The costume design in particular is literally Oscar worthy stuff, pulling from tribes and cultures all over Africa while adding futuristic aesthetics seamlessly. And while the cinematography is too dark for one scene, the cinematography everywhere else is fantastic, popping with color and life, along with some tricky/badass tracking shots.
Oh, and there's the music. The original score sounds fantastic, making great use of percussion for some truly incredible scenes. The original songs composed by Kendrick Lamar is the cherry on top, a final touch that sends the film's music up to the best that Marvel movie's have ever had.
Clocking in at roughly two hours and fifteen minutes, the movie hits a great pace, but I almost wished it was a little longer to let certain emotional beats rest a bit longer. And as I will always maintain, if one of your complaints about a movie is that you wish it was longer, it was doing something right.
Black Panther is a massive comic book epic full of characters and complex ideas, but it is still a Marvel movie. That's not a point against it, but a way to keep your expectations in check. It's not a massive departure from the other Marvel movies, but like the best Marvel movies it forges its own identity. Some of them have done that with a particular brand of humor, some of them have done that by teaming up beloved characters, but Black Panther achieves it through a genre blend and a hefty dose of necessary ideas inherent to its characters and story.
I'm going to watch it at least one more time in theaters to see how highly I'd rank it against other Marvel movies, but it's definitely a strong contender in a lineup of films that have a handful of genre defining films already.
And never forget, Ryan Coogler is a force of nature that the film industry is going to be contending with for years. The guy is three for three on movies and he's only thirty-one years old. I mean, damn. Damn.