Black Panther (2018)
Director: Ryan Coogler
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the media behemoth it has become, has reached 18 films with no signs of slowing down. With assembly line efficiency the studio is pumping out blockbuster after blockbuster with few leaving an impression lasting more than 15 minutes outside the theater.
Nonetheless, even the not-so-good films manage to be entertaining, mainly because of the tried and true Marvel formula; keep the story simple leaving more room for prime super hero stuff and play everything right down the middle.
With the franchise nearing 20 films now, perhaps the formula is becoming threadbare, because the last three releases from the studio have had a surprising air of personality. If we could ignore how underwhelming the Infinity War trailer is for a moment, and consider Thor Ragnorak, Guardians of The Galaxy 2, and the new film, by director Ryan Coogler, Black Panther, are indications the MCU is headed in a modern, hopefully more daring, direction.
This isn’t to give Marvel a pass, a black super hero movie should have been a no brainer for the studio about a decade ago, but the strength of the film isn’t just the fact we finally have a black super hero, but that it has a distinct voice and style unlike any previous Marvel entry.
The new King of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) could have easily gotten the Tony Stark treatment, and Boseman probably would have nailed that too, but instead he’s a cool, calm, leader without any of the typical self-doubt/identity crisis tropes that are typical of most Marvel introductory films. T’Challa knows who he is; the intrigue is watching him navigate the traditions and politics of his home.
Wakanda is caught in the middle of an existential crisis as to whether or not it should share its technological advances with the world, or remain isolated. It’s a crisis that plays out in bookended flashbacks of T’Challa’s father and uncle. For the ex-future queen of Wakanda, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the writing is on the holographic wall that hides the country. The Vibranium, the meteoric resource that powers all of Wakanda’s advances is leaking out from behind the holographic veil and getting into the hands of dangerous people. She believes it is Wakanda’s duty to the rest of the world to open its arms to share in the future, while The King remains unsure, and worries about the risks.
The struggle comes to a head when stranger, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) shows up. There is a lot more emotionally at play between The Black Panther and Killmonger than the typical push-pull Hero/villain dynamic. Killmonger, besides having the most on the nose moniker in movie history, represents the extreme end of the two sides of Wakanda. He not only wants to announce Wakanda to the world, but he wants to conquer it. His narrative is rushed a little into the third act, and he drops out of the film completely for a long stretch, but the first fight scene between him and T’Challa, for the throne, stands out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fight scene in a Marvel movie where I’m simultaneously rooting for the hero while empathizing with the villain. It sounds trivial, but really, we finally got a multi-layered villain worth remembering in a Marvel movie. Jordan’s swaggered performance and Coogler’s script had a lot to do with that.
The core of The Black Panther’s strength, and that of the film, is the fierce and loyal people surrounding Black Panther, most refreshingly, the women. In addition Nyong’o, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and the scientific maven behind much of Wakanda’s technology, while Danai Gurira, is the steely nerved General Okoye. Okoye’s own personal conflict over how to serve Wakanda gives the film a little more emotional oomph going into the final act, a battle between the fractured Wakandans (Wakandians?). Okoye’s best moment is in the best action set piece of the movie, a frenetic battle in a casino that tumbles into an elaborate car chase.
The action scenes and effects aren’t Black Panther’s strong suit, however. The CG effects look a little dated and some of the action scenes feel like a distraction from the story. Early on it wastes a little too much time trying to head fake the audience into believing Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is the main antagonist while unnecessarily hiding Killmonger. Again, the struggle is within Wakanda and it’s more interesting than Plot Devisses Klaue. Once Killmonger gets to Wakanda, the emotional arc of the film kicks in, and though it feels rushed, it’s exactly what separates it from pervious Marvel films. It becomes a compelling sci-fi/fantasy film with a deeper pondering than mere loud noises and flashy action.
It only took them 18 films but Marvel seems to be loosening its grip on film makers a little more and allowing for a more personal touch in these films, and director Ryan Coogler made a deeply personal film that feels more like an emotional celebration than another super hero movie.