Black Panther is already a bona fide hit, out there printing money, and its cultural importance shouldn't be understated. It's a big, big deal, and a very good thing, to have a black superhero in a film full of black characters produced by a black creative team, backed by countless millions of major studio dollars, and I hope that in twenty years we look back at Ryan Coogler's movie and view it as far more important than we do today.
There has, honestly, never been anything like it in that regard, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum - it's like, what, the twentieth movie in Marvel's cinematic universe? (Fact check: 18th. That's still insane.) Black Panther's both wholly unique and just the next movie from the studio that gave us Ant-Man and Thor: The Dark World - so how does it do..?
Don't believe the Rotten Tomatoes hype - it's not perfect. It's not 100% fresh, but I'm not comparing it to fucking Ladybird or Zootopia. You have to consider Black Panther in comparison and in competition with its peers - just as it's fair to compare Justice League and Batman Vs. Superman against everything in Marvel's sizable stable of film - and compared to its peers... I think Black Panther is The Best Marvel Movie, going back to Iron Man. Yes, better than Winter Soldier.
It's fair to say that Winter Soldier or perhaps Avengers has the best action. It's fair to say that Thor: Ragnarok and the first Guardians of the Galaxy and probably Deadpool are neck-and-neck for funniest, but Black Panther stands atop the entire Marvel and DC and whatever else superhero genre pantheon by virtue of having the best story.
'Cause... we remember the action, the imagery of The Dark Knight Returns, but it's famous, it's huge, it's important because it was a comic book with an incredible story. Comics, like books and movies are at their heart a medium for conveying a narrative, and it's just that simple - Black Panther has the most considered, well-plotted, well-populated story of any Marvel movie I can name.
The Nova Corps and the universe of Guardians is pretty-darned interesting - as is the cool eastern-but-also-psychedelic spiritual trappings of Doctor Strange, but they've got nothing on the design, the concept, the execution of Wakanda in Black Panther.
Almost more of a character - and certainly more fully-explored - than T'Challa himself, Wakanda is a beautiful, fascinating, rich place. Rich in detail and thought and beauty. The screen becomes a thousand tiny palms, slapping you across the face with little details you wish you could admire longer, but it’s so dense with awesome visual touches that it’s impossible to keep up, so all you can do is sit there, enchanted. This is a place you want to visit, a place you'd like to vacation, a place people wish they could import fashions from. It's the most fully-realized world a Marvel movie's ever suggested.
|Goddamnit, he's so sexy.|
Erik Killmonger is honestly the best villain any Marvel movie has ever had, full stop. He accomplishes this without CGI armor (okay well he does have CGI armor – but it’s not doing him any favors) or a ton of makeup, without anything, really, except for the fact that he's got a point.
He was deeply wounded by Wakanda's pride and protection of its interests - sins of the fathers, on his part and T'Challa's - and was raised in a country that brutally oppresses black people. He believes it's Wakanda's responsibility to free black people the world over via its ridiculously powerful weapons technology - so while he has a point and what he wants to achieve is noble, the only way he can see to go about it amounts to potential genocide, and a world war.
Michael B. Jordan is not as accomplished an actor as the rest of the cast, I feel, but he comes across as intelligent and honest, and brings a beautiful and imposing physicality to Killmonger. Most of Black Panther's action, I think, is less exciting and impressive than you can find elsewhere in Marvel canon, but Killmonger's first duel with T'Challa, shirts off in a ceremonial pool, is brutal and awesome. The fact that you can kind of empathize with his goal alone makes him far more interesting than any arms dealer despot or living planet or forgotten Norse God the franchise has offered in the past - as in all the best villains.
He's crazy, don't get me wrong, and the fact that all of Wakanda doesn't rise up against his clearly insane notions of righting global society's wrongs is also pretty crazy when everyone you meet here seems pretty reasonable, but he's still more interesting than...
...who was the bad guy in Iron Man 3 again...? I forget. Was it Sam Rockwell? Whatever. Killmonger's light-years better, and that waterbound duel with T'Challa is the best action sequence in the film.
The rest of the action I found pretty forgettable - perhaps a result of some judder in the theater I was in (some movies are actually best viewed at home, I find) - except for one moment with Okoye, the leader of Wakanda's elite security force. A very serious lady with a shaved head, Okoye unironically walks around with a spear as her only protection, and scoffs at guns.
There's this part in the first half of the movie where she's in a car chase, right? And she's standing on top of this car as it speeds through the streets in pursuit of her quarry, and she takes her spear and fires it through the back window of the car they're chasing, through the front window, and into the pavement in front of the car.
This results in the car stopping, very abruptly. It was awesome. Okoye is awesome. The entire supporting cast is awesome. Andy Serkis chews up the scenery as always, Martin Freeman is the clueless outsider, agape at Wakanda, Lupita Nyong'o is way-too-gorgeous as T'Challa's ex and love interest and also she's a super spy. Angela Bassett is this stoic, strong-silent-type matriarch of T'Challa's family, Daniel Kaluuya continues his effortlessly powerful emoting as T'Challa's good friend who does some very stupid things, and this guy Winston Duke plays the leader of one of Wakanda's tribes and he's... he's just awesome. Oh there's also Forest Whitaker. He's in there too.
Also awesome - half of the interesting, endearing, entertaining supporting cast I just mentioned are women, and if you've paid attention to anything around the 'net about Black Panther this past week, you've probably already heard about Shuri.
Shuri is T'Challa's sister, princess of the Wakandan throne and Q to T'Challa's Bond, but that's giving her far too little credit. She is, essentially, a sidekick, but she feels like a star who's just hanging out in her brother's movie as moral support, and every time she shows up Black Panther becomes twice as fun.
This is a star-making turn for Letitia Wright, and I fully expect her to be 2018-19's It Girl as a result. I want to see this woman in romantic comedies and lurid thrillers and period pieces, stat. Shuri is funny, warm, endearing, sharp and oh by the way she's a scientific genius who is at the bleeding edge of technology in a country that's a few hundred years ahead of the rest of the world. She's a women-in-science superstar who sees buttons on gadgets as quaint, and Wright makes her the freshest, most-alive feeling thing in a movie that's already having a lot of fun.
Wright steals every single scene she's in, and I kinda' want a movie where T'Challa gets knocked on the head and has amnesia or somethin’ for a few months, requiring Shuri to take over the Wakandan throne and run around in black/purple spandex saving the world (it's already happened in the comics).
Oh, right. T'Challa. He's in here too.
The fact that he's the last thing that comes to mind when considering the film is my biggest problem with Black Panther. Wakanda is incredible, and the design and costume and prop work that’s gone into it ensures Black Pantherconstantly dazzles, and the viewer is breathlessly trying to soak it all in. You’re admiring the detailing on this dude’s suit and oh look at the way the spear works and oh that jet thing looks like a firefly! The story is a cool sins-of-the-fathers / thought experiment about what responsibilities a nation like Wakanda would have, if it existed (and you’ll wish it did), with each story point really driven by character – nothing feels forced, here. The cast is wall-to-wall talent of the highest caliber, an explosion of interesting, sharply-realized people you’ll want to spend more time with… and T’Challa’s here too. He’s just way, way less interesting than the visual design, the story itself, the world it takes place in, and the other Wakandans who surround him.
None of this is down to Chadwick Boseman – he’s still effortlessly charming, notably handsome, confident and cool with nicely human vulnerabilities, and he remains the remarkable talent we saw in Get On Up – but Black Panther is a lot more interested in exploring and celebrating the country of Wakanda and its people than it is in the titular hero. He calls out hypocrisy and evil when he sees it – that’s cool! He’s a good guy, and we want him to sit atop his rightful throne, but he doesn’t… he never really feels challenged over the course of the movie, physically or intellectually, he’s never really defined for us – and the fact that he didn’t intellectually disarm a half-dozen red flags we can see coming a mile away kinda’ throws a wrench into Black Panther, the character, as he’s rendered in the source material.
The T’Challa of the comics is a smarter-than-Batman level genius. He saved Earth from Galactus, Consumer of Worlds, just by out-debating him. He’s a peerless martial artist and an infinitely sly opponent who has a contingency plan for everything – but we saw none of this in Black Panther. Maybe the idea is – almost ignoring his presence in Captain America: Civil War – that this is his true introduction, and we’re meeting him before he really defines what kind of king and Panther he is, which is why he’s not truly explored here, but his homeland is. This doesn’t feel like the birth of his legend, it feels more like the exposition before we get to his Actual Adventure.
Maybe Marvel Studios’ T’Challa really is just a kinda' boring but very well-dressed, suave guy, compared to the place and people he comes from, but I left the theater far less interested in how he’d save the world next time than what Shuri was up to, and how big her role will be in the sequel.
But, again, that’s my one complaint about the film. I’m wracking my brain trying to come up with a superhero movie that is as generous and accomplished as Black Panther in terms of overall story (maybe The Incredibles?), in terms of worldbuilding (maybe Blade? The first one, specifically - remember him walking through the pages of the Book of Arabus? That was awesome), in terms of cast of characters (nothing), in terms of visual design and execution (nothing) and the fact is Black Panther is the new high watermark among Marvel’s very sizable library, and perhaps superhero movies in general. It has its flaws – I wish T’Challa himself did more cool shit and was better-defined, but everything surrounding that cool cat is absolutely dazzling.
To give it another, more personal spin - how good is Black Panther? This is the first time I've used the review tag on this blog since July of 2015.