Black Panther has all the hallmarks of your usual Marvel entry, but it has a lot of exceptional elements that lift it above the more recent adventures.
After his father was killed during the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa finds himself elevated as King of his father’s country of Wakanda. While his people approve, a young usurper arrives from America with right to the throne…
Black Panther has been given ridiculously high praise from all critics, considered to be one of the best Marvel films ever made, Rotten Tomatoes has it higher than even Del Toro’s acclaimed The Shape of Water, and Michael B. Jordan’s antagonist has been compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Earth moving The Dark Knight. All of that is a nonsense, really. However, that doesn’t mean Marvel’s Black Panther isn’t one of the more interesting and exceptional productions from the studio in recent years.
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who also wrote and directed the impressive Creed back in 2015, starring returning Chadwick Boseman and newcomer Michael B. Jordan (who starred in Creed) there is some great chemistry in front of and behind the camera. The film was advertised as a full-on action movie, in fact the trailers did not impress; looking like more of the same, bendy CGI people bouncing around on top of cars. But the film actually takes a step back and knows when to talk and importantly how to talk.
Coogler carves out his characters, their motivations and mythologies without direct influence of the wider MCU, with Wakanda being a secretive country, literally hiding vast technological wealth behind an invisibility shield, filled to the brim with technology so advanced it is “like magic” (as the script tells us).
But the film backs down from the boyish silliness of Thor: Ragnarok, or the overdone severity of Civil War, it addresses Wakanda’s political struggle within the world. Whether to stay recluse and within their ancient ideals, or to branch out and help others. These differing ideals are championed by Boseman’s T’Challa and Jordan’s Eric “Killmonger”.
It is safe to say, despite the character’s rather silly handle “Killmonger”, Jordan’s antagonist is one of the best Marvel Studios has ever written. It is actually possible to feel sympathy for this character! What is this?! A three dimensional bad guy in a Marvel film??
This is mostly because of his character and the heroic T’Challa being two sides of the same coin, as many of the best heroes and villains often are. They are the embodiment of the old argument of nature versus nurture; one of them raised in the streets, the other raised in comfort. These two have great chemistry by the end of the film.
Despite the apparent focus around T’Challa and Eric, the film has a cast supporting cast that get plenty of screen time. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright are three strong female characters who have plenty to do: Gurira being T’Challa’s general and Wright being Black Panther’s answer to James Bond’s Q. With so many characters, it is impressive that you care about any of them, but with scenes taking place without T’Challa, and the film giving them time to go instead of having more action sequences, it all works.
The film is remarkably well paced. We see Wakandan traditions and their technology without feeling too lost or confused, concepts are introduced slowly and even repeated to show their value to our characters. We have some secondary MCU characters returning to aid in this, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis both provide great outsider perspectives.
Because a great deal of the film takes place in Wakanda, and this is the root of some angry minorities protests at the film’s “critical darling” status. This is completely unfounded and unfair. Black Panther is a great dive into another country – albeit a fictional one – for the MCU to broaden its horizons. There’s plenty of great design work at play here and (for once) a memorable original soundtrack from the MCU.
But there are some niggling problems that the MCU just cannot shift, which are at this point being baked into the formula and are completely irreversible. I am sorry, but some of the CGI is still not good enough for such a huge studio with Disney backing. You can have a visceral fight sequence without having everyone computer generated all the time, and did they computer generate T’Challa’s suit!? Do they actively want this to look like Green Lantern in five years time?
While “Killmonger” is one of Marvel’s best villains in terms of personality and motivations, the plot still boils down to two people with the same superpowers fighting each other. The Marvel formula as old as Iron Man resurfaces, even though here it has a bit more thematic drive than other generic clashes.
Also I could have sworn the sets of Wakanda’s streets were the same sets as Sakaar in Thor: Ragnarok…
But I was impressed by Black Panther. I was impressed by the stepping up of character motivations and the ideologies that define them. The humour was there but wasn’t aggressively forced into the script, and overall it ironed out some (but not quite all) the kinks in the MCU’s formula.