Lets get this out of the way, Marvel films are rather formulaic. We get the origin of the hero in the first third of the film, the second third is the set up where they are beaten down, then the last third turns into a fist fight. This is generally what we can expect and as more films are released, that formula grows a bit old. So, the question is, with each new release, can Marvel Studios deliver enough “new” to keep the audience engaged and interested. Black Panther delivers a lot new and then some, though suffers in that last third due to the formula.
The story is a bit James Bond as Black Panther must bring to justice a man who stole the country’s precious Vibranium decades earlier. Cool gadgets are plenty as illegal deals are attempted to be broken up all as we learn more about these cast of characters.
While we know some of Black Panther and the Dora Milaje (his elite bodyguards/warriors) from Captain America: Civil War where they debuted, the world of Wakanda is mainly unknown and this film is far more than the few that debuted in what seems forever ago. In a sense, this is an origin story like so many other Marvel Studios releases as T’Challa takes up the mantle of King as well as Black Panther. But, where Black Panther stands heads and above what’s come before is how it does that origin story and it’s focus on not just one man.
Played by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa is conservative in many ways. There’s not as much ego or brashness, instead Boseman plays the character as the leader of a nation but also one who is clearly learning. He doesn’t go it alone or “have to learn,” he seeks council and relies on those around him. This is a very different superhero and the movie does an excellent job of recognizing that. Where it really stands out from those before is the supporting cast which is large and in charge. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Letitia Wright as Shuri, it’s the women (especially the Dora Milaje) who steal the show. Wonder Woman showed us kick-ass women, this film takes it to the next level in so many ways. And, while they definitely kicked ass, their presences was a statement too. The Dora Milaje are not one size fits all. While all members are athletic, the heights, build, and skin tone differ for each. While I expected a general uniform look (something more like the Amazons in Wonder Woman), I was surprised at the vast differences. In one scene in particular one rather tall member is next to a shorter member and I can only think this was done on purpose to emphasize this. Wright especially stands out for her enthusiasm and Q like character. She delivers the tech that makes Black Panther (and Wakanda) function. As T’Challa’s sister, there’s also a healthy relationship that feels fresh and like it’s been missing from movie screens.
But, it’s not just the young brilliant and kick-ass women who add to the film. Angela Bassett as Ramonda and Forest Whitaker as Zuri add a gravitas in a way and feel like they’re passing the baton to a new generation of Black actors.
But, what is a Marvel film without its villains? Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue and Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger step into those roles in what may be the best Marvel villains to date. We’ve seen Serkis’ briefly in a previous Marvel film, but here he’s able to amp up the sleaze to the next level both having fun with it all and making the audience feel dirty. But, it’s Jordan’s Killmonger that delivers a character that’s complicated at at times sympathetic. It’s difficult to truly dissect everything without spoilers but he’s an American whose goal is to take over the throne of Wakanda. His Western Imperialism embodied but one whose past and history makes him sympathetic.
And that complicated nature is what also makes Black Panther stand out as one of Marvel’s best films. This is a film, that in numerous scenes, debates the isolationist policy of Wakanda. It debates how this wealthy African nation leaves other nations and specifically Black individuals to suffer. While it prospers it does not provide aid, instead pretending it too is a Third World Nation. It directly addresses the concept of Black individuals “making it” then leaving others, the debate about supporting one’s own community. While the film takes place in Wakanda, it’s a debate that’s had right here in American communities, about supporting Black owned businesses or creators. It’s that sort of layering and detail that again makes the film stand out and the films’ writers Ryan Coogler (who also directed) and Joe Robert Cole deserve accolades for that.
Coogler’s direction, while good, falls a bit short of my expectations. Coogler is known for Fruitvale Station and Creed (both starring Michael B. Jordan). When it comes to direction, both of those films surpass Black Panther. But, visually, the film is amazing delivering us something that would make Jack Kirby cry. This is Afrofuturism on screen and through all the wonders of the city, when we get to the streets it feels lived in and real. Visually the film is stunning and you do see Coogler’s touches with small looks and moments that create a story that feels natural and how individuals actually interact.
As I said, the film does stumble a bit towards the end with a typical battle that has become standard in Marvel Studio films. This one feels like a bit of escalation with the amount of individuals involved so it does shake things up in some ways. It’s not just the usual hero fighting bad guy. But, the film does stumble in typical Marvel fashion. If it had come out earlier, before the pattern of stories was clear, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. But, the pattern and formula is pretty clear now.
Black Panther feels fresh though. The women steal the show. The first 2/3s feels more like a James Bond film than typical superhero movie, and there’s a healthy dose of exploring real world issues. There’s an enthusiasm and enough freshness about the film to make it stand out from the pack as one of Marvel’s best. The fact that everyone on screen doesn’t look like me is a large portion of that. Hopefully the film is as much of a success as I expect it to be and we see much more of this to come.
Overall Rating: 8.75