Some movies just don’t live up to the hype, but Black Panther certainly does. The first solo-film for Wakanda’s King, Black Panther is an entertaining, character-driven piece that pushes the superhero genre to new heights. If Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor:Ragnarok were Marvel Studio’s first attempts to shake up their formula and release intimate, smaller scale stories, then Black Panther proves this is the right direction for the juggernaut studio to take as they pivot into Phase 4.
While Black Panther is clearly a superhero movie, it still feels like a Ryan Coogler project. The director, who also wrote the script, is known for creating personal stories that challenge and push the main characters. In the middle of all the explosive action, Black Panther is about trying to do the right thing and figuring out how to honor the past while looking toward the future. King T’Challa, played wonderfully by Chadwick Boseman, is forced to grow as he tries to figure out the best way to protect his people and homeland from outside threats while simultaneously dealing with his own emotional struggles.
T’Challa may be the one making final decisions, but no King can rule alone. Similarly, he may be a strong fighter, but that doesn’t mean the Black Panther participates in every battle. Instead, he has an elite group of all-female fighters around him called the Dora Milaje, led by Danai Gurira’s fierce Okoye, that protect him and a group of advisers who give him counsel. For understandable reasons the film is called Black Panther, but it could just as easily been called The World of Wakanda because all of the supporting characters were given ample screen time and room to develop throughout the film. Every newcomer is given an independent personality and their own set of challenges that they have to overcome as things progress. None of the characters are props, instead, everyone plays a vital role in pushing the story forward and making T’Challa look at things in a different way as he learns how to rule.
Out of all the new characters, Letitia Wright’s Shuri was probably my favorite. T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri is the chief scientist in Wakanda and even helped design the technologically-laden Black Panther suit. Without her inventive mind, Wakanda wouldn’t be the advanced nation it is and people wouldn’t have access to tech that makes their lives easier on a daily basis. Even though she’s a serious scientist, she’s also a fun-loving teenager who enjoys making fun of her brother’s fashion sense or teasing him when he freezes around his love interest. Not only is she a great character in her own right who has a lot of room to grow in the MCU, but it seems more likely than not her path will cross with Tony Stark in the future and Iron Man is gonna be mighty impressed when he sees all her fancy tech.
What really distinguished Black Panther from the rest of Marvel’s movies is the interesting villain. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger isn’t out there trying to destroy the world with a CGI laser for no reason, he’s a deeply wounded individual with a tragic backstory and clear motivation. He may have rough tactics to achieve his goals, but it’s hard to label him a bad guy. Instead of a stereotypical villain, Killmonger is closer to a revolutionary who understands the problems colonialism has led to and has a potential solution for the subjugation he’s seen. Even though Black Panther includes another example of a hero fighting a villain with a similar suit and abilities, this film doesn’t fall into the dull traps earlier Marvel movies did while developing their villains. Killmonger’s emotional arc and desire to change the world in a positive way makes him an easy individual to empathize with and a hard character to root against.
From a technical perspective, Coogler knows how to get the most out of every action scene. With the help of cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the first female cinematographer to receive an Oscar nomination for her work on Mudbound, the camera gets up close and personal during battle sequences. Instead of cutting away when the action gets good, the film shows a lot of direct works and puts the amazing stunt work in the forefront. While there is some CGI work, these fights all feel grounded and real instead of over-the-top and disorienting. Not only does the fighting include a gritty combination of various combat styles, but each battle helps the audience understand the characters’ personalities more. The way people act in battle and the way they treat their opponents reveals just as much about them as their dialogue in this honor-filled society.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is how everything comes back to world building. Black Panther is so proud of its African heritage and the music, costumes, and even set design all reflect that cultural pride. Wakanda may be an advanced, technologically rich country, but it’s also a melting pot of old and new ideas to come together. The younger generation wears more modern clothing than the elders, but they still don bright colors and wear jewelry that links them with their ancestors. More so than pretty much any other Marvel movie, the costumes really were an instrumental part of character development here, as everything from tattoos to having a shaved head said something about the character’s role in society.
At two hours and 15 minutes long, Black Panther has a brisk pacing that constantly keeps things moving. Despite the length, the movie never drags on or feels bogged down since everything constantly goes back to world building. Even though Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of years worth of Marvel stories, I sincerely doubt it will surpass Black Panther’s high quality. Coogler and his team turned in a sharp movie that isn’t afraid to critique the world we all live in full of interesting, believable characters and an interesting setting.
Plus, there’s no way any upcoming Marvel films can top Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack, so this really does feel like the ultimate superhero movie experience.
Final Score: 9/10