I like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and for some time now I have said that its best effort by far was Captain America: The Winter Soldier because of its story, action, pacing, tone and character development. Since that movie released in 2014, I've been waiting for the MCU to get back to that level with a movie.
It took four years but they finally did it with Black Panther. Man, did they ever.
I went into the movie with very high expectations that I was still trying to temper and keep in check, especially after seeing so many glowing reviews for it. There is definitely a tendency with the track record of Marvel Studios to simply proclaim each new MCU movie "the best one yet" every time one is released. I don't do that because I am more critical of that franchise than others, but I still wanted to avoid any kind of trap thinking or just joining the crowd in a popular opinion.
The thing is I'm sitting here writing this review and I can't think of anything bad to say about Black Panther as a movie. Seriously, I'm struggling for things that aren't just silly nitpicks to me. Granted, I'm not someone that automatically looks for negatives in a popular movie like so many others do, but I really have been trying to stay grounded and balanced about my perception of what this movie was going to be and I really just can't do that. I have to be completely honest about it.
Black Panther is phenomenal. It's seriously one of the MCU's greatest achievements by far and it's not even close. It is every bit on the level of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and perhaps even higher than that. For once the praise of "best one yet" absolutely applies here and I'm not one to say that lightly about any movie, let alone an MCU one but this movie completely deserves that praise.
The story of Black Panther has a lot of layers to it but at its core it is about T'Challa's ascension from prince to king of the African nation Wakanda, a people that show the appearance of a third-world farming country to the rest of the world but because of a vast and extensive Vibranium mine, are hiding the most technologically advanced civilization in mankind's history. As T'Challa struggles with this secret to keep from the rest of the world, he also deals with his responsibilities as the Black Panther, protector of Wakanda from all enemies, and opposition from others who challenge him for their right to the throne he sits on in the wake of his father T'Chaka's death, which occurred at the hands of Zemo in Captain America: Civil War.
There's so much to unpack about this movie even without giving away spoilers but I have to start with Ryan Coogler and the fact that Marvel Studios without question gave him the freedom to tell the story that he absolutely wanted to tell, which was my greatest concern by far about this movie. Would Kevin Feige allow Coogler to go "off book" from the rest of Phase 3 and tell a more serious and grounded story for Black Panther? The answer is emphatically yes and the result is spectacular. This is a movie that was made brilliantly because the studio trusted its director and when you have someone as talented as Coogler at the helm, you would be a fool not to trust him. Fortunately for all of us, Marvel never second guessed him and all of what he said in interviews about the freedom he was being given by the studio was 110 percent true. Hallelujah.
So with Coogler's freedom came something that I have never dared see the MCU even attempt, which was a serious examination of social and racial issues. Indeed, Black Panther does not pull punches when it comes to discussing the fate of Africans and African-Americans in today's world and there is more than one occasion in the movie where the tortured and tumultuous history of colonization and slavery is directly referenced in dialogue and in the plot itself. This is very much the extra layer of storytelling that I and many others have been critical of Marvel running away from in the past, but they take it head on in Black Panther and it is more than refreshing to see.
The Wakandans are simply fantastic. All of them. And their country is nothing short of gorgeous in every respect. Not only does Coogler give you a great glimpse into Wakandan way of life but also grand and glorious master shots of the landscapes, cityscapes and technological achievements abound. As much as I wanted Wakanda to exist in real life after Civil War, I wish that even more now after seeing it showcased for an entire movie.
There isn't a single weak link in this cast. Period. Chadwick Boseman builds on his T'Challa role introduced in Civil War and makes a feature-length effort out of it that is outstanding in every respect. His supporting cast is also dynamite, starting with Danai Gurira's Okoye, Wakanda's greatest warrior and the general of T'Challa's personal guard, the Dora Milaje. To say that she is fierce is the epitome of understatement. She is absolutely badass and dominates the screen with great power and grace in some of the film's major action sequences. Equally impressive is Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong'o, who is a Wakandan spy for the throne with a more than personal connection to T'Challa himself. Where Okoye's loyalty is to Wakanda first and T"Challa second, Nakia's loyalty lies with T'Challa first and Wakanda second and her feelings about the rest of the world become a very big part of the overall plot and intentions during the movie.
Rounding out the triumvirate of strong female main characters in Black Panther is Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. She is T'Challa's younger sister and a genius Vibranium engineer that serves as his Q from James Bond, supplying him with the latest in Wakandan design tech and gadgetry for his missions as the Black Panther. She is youthful, energetic and just as much a spitfire if not more than the other women in this cast are and it's a great thing to see.
Angela Bassett lends her gravitas and truly ageless presence as Ramonda, T'Challa's mother and queen of Wakanda, and Forest Whitaker is also strong as Zuri, a Wakandan elder loyal to T'Challa and his family. As for the other tribes' representation in the movie, that falls to Daniel Kaluuya as W'Kabi and Winston Duke as M'Baku. Both characters represent other interests in Wakanda that are not always in lockstep with the king's reign. We also see the return of Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross from Civil War and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, first and last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Everyone here is seriously solid to great in this movie, right down to Florence Kasumba's most welcome presence as Ayo, the Dora Milaje warrior who once told Black Widow "move or you will be moved." Sterling K. Brown from This Is Us also makes an appearance or two in an important role that can't be revealed for spoiler purposes but let's just say he's beyond critical to the plot and he's awesome as always.
The X-factor that does his best to steal the whole show though is Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, who also has his designs on the throne of Wakanda for very particular and personal reasons. As I and many others have noted over the years, the MCU has had a consistent problem with plot device villains in their movies that have less than strong motivations and barely any development other than moving the story along for the heroes. That's simply not the case here by a long shot. Erik Killmonger is one of the franchise's best and most developed villains in its ten-year history and what makes it work so well is twofold between Jordan's strong and vibrant performance and his tragically empathetic backstory. This is not a villain you are programmed to hate at all costs. Instead, Killmonger challenges you as an audience member to tell him he's wrong for thinking and feeling the way that he does, even if his methods and full intentions are nothing short of monstrous. Those are the best villains, the ones with noble intentions at the heart of their evil plans and the MCU simply hasn't done too much of that. They get it right here.
Another thing that Marvel Studios absolutely nails with Black Panther is the music, and I'm not just talking about the soundtrack. The original score for the film was composed by Ludwig Goransson who not only scored Coogler's previous films Fruitvale Station and Creed but also collaborated with Donald Glover's Childish Gambino on multiple occasions. He makes his comic book movie scoring debut here and it's an incredible score that combines a full 132-piece western classical orchestra with African percussionists and a 40-person choir. The result is a unique, vibrant, moving and powerfully dynamic piece of music that drives the background narrative of Black Panther extremely well and lends so much to the atmosphere of the film without taking it over or failing to fit in properly. It's a great piece of work and Goransson, who previously wasn't on my radar is now someone I will be looking for in future movie scoring.
One of the things that kept flashing in my head the entire time I was watching Black Panther is that above all, it felt like a "real movie," meaning that even aside from the suspension of disbelief inherent with any and all comic book movies, this one felt deeper, more dramatic and more emotional than any others. It is certainly a departure from what we have seen in the past two years with Phase 3 of the MCU that has given us more comical and jovial movies to chew on that haven't exactly dug as deep as they could have. Black Panther is not without humor or joviality as there are plenty of laugh out loud moments for the audience to enjoy, but it never sacrifices the movie's story or character development for a badly timed joke, nor is the humor lowest common denominator either. In fact, there really isn't a lowest common denominator character in the film, which is another refreshing change from recent MCU structure. Everyone here is intelligent, confident and capable on some level, even in their most vulnerable moments and nothing about the lighter moments in the movie is cheap or tossed in just for a silly moment to break up tension.
Much has been made about the cultural impact of a comic book movie that features a majority black and African cast and in many ways it is humbling as a fan for me to say that Black Panther is THE shining example of such a film and is a great testament to the power and presence of such a cast and crew. To see a movie dominated by people of color and never once devolve into stereotype or old standards for the entire 2 hours and 14 minutes was in my opinion long overdue and I can only hope that it paves the way for more incredible work like it to be done on such a grand scale with talented people of color at the helm. It is indeed a historic moment in cinema and with any luck, a child can grow up watching this movie and have it inspire them to be a great storyteller in their own right, knowing that others that look just like them have now done it and proven that it can be done extremely well.
I could say so much more about Black Panther but I feel like this review is long enough. I'm writing this after just one viewing. I need to see it again very soon. Then again after that and some more times until I am tired of watching it, which will likely be never.
The MCU has set the bar very high for itself in 2018. Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and The Wasp have a HUGE act to follow now. Fun times, indeed.
BLACK PANTHER - 5 out of 5 - In theaters February 16, 2018