Film Review: Black Panther
When Marvel announced that Ryan Coogler would be assuming directorial duties on Black Panther, some commentators (including this one) reacted gloomily. Creed had just jump-started the Rocky franchise, and Marvel had yet to begin the promising run that started with the dour Captain America: Civil War and culminated in the zany pleasures of Thor: Ragnarok. A comic book movie didn’t seem like the best option for an exciting young director. Those fears seems silly now, because Coogler does for comic book films what Creed did for the boxing genre: not reinvent exactly, but reinvigorate.
In his two studio films (before that, he directed the indie Fruitvale Station), Coogler has managed to make the most codified of genres—sports and comics—feel alive and personal. Creed is still an American story, whereas Black Panther, set in the fictional nation of Wakanda, could have come across as just another western director (albeit a black one) picturing exotic Africa. Coogler avoids this by making Black Panther as unapologetically African a film as possible in the heart of mainstream Hollywood. The accents, the music, the costumes and the concerns are all tied to the continent, a drastic (and welcome) change for the comic book genre, usually so America-focused.
We first met T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, in which he lost his father, the ruler of Wakanda, to a terrorist attack, and subsequently, as the superhero Black Panther, tracked down the man responsible. In this film, he returns to Wakanda to claim the throne, though only after a picturesque fight-to-the-death at the edge of a waterfall. Just as he’s settling down to rule, though, he’s presented with a mission he can’t refuse: a chance to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black marketer who stole some vibranium, the valuable alien metal that Wakanda has in droves, and has successfully kept secret from the rest of the world. Unbeknownst to T’Challa, Klaue has a cohort, Killmonger (Michel B Jordan), an ex-soldier with a connection to his homeland, and a grudge of Shakespearean proportions.
This is just one of many things Shakespearean in Black Panther, which is bursting with dead fathers, duplicitous uncles, fever dreams and courtroom intrigues. By situating the film in Wakanda (with an eye-catching detour to South Korea) and focusing on T’Challa’s family problems, Coogler offers a narrative more emotionally wrought and less self-aware than the standard Marvel product. Since every superhero film now must address some or the other political issue, Black Panther uses T’Challa’s actual governmental role to discuss the responsibility of nation-states. Wakanda, whose reserves of vibranium have allowed it to build dazzling future tech, has maintained a façade of being a third world country. Does this mean they have an obligation to help other nations, perhaps let in refugees? (Opinions are divided.) Even Killmonger’s ostensible plan—to sell vibranium to oppressed people of colour across the world—has a political slant: the violent reversal of centuries of white oppression.
Ever since the trailer dropped, there’s been a lot of talk about the almost-entirely black cast. Now that the film’s released, perhaps the discussion can shift to how well everyone acquits themselves. Boseman, whose James Brown in Get On Up is one of the great overlooked turns of the last decade, brings a watchfulness and an understated intelligence to the role. He gets more out of quizzical look than most actors would out of a double take (Jordan, in wonderful contrast, chews every bit of scenery available). His reticence is wonderfully played off against by Lupita Nyong’o(Nakia, a Wakandan special operative and T’Challa’s ex) and the irrepressible Letitia Wright (Shuri, T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister, whose skills as an inventor might see her take over Tony Stark’s role in the franchise). Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Martin Freeman round out the cast, with Danai Gurira scene-stealingly fierce as Okoye, head of the king’s all-female bodyguard unit.
Rachel Morrison, who recently became the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (for Mudbound), lends this film a saturated vividness that’s unlike the house style of the Avengers films or the pop art of Thor: Ragnarok. Even more successful in differentiating the film from its MCU predecessors is Ludwig Göransson’s score, which shifts, improbably, from traditional chants and rhythms to hip-hop beats to orchestral movements. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Black Panther doesn’t quite have the tightness of Creed—it cannot dodge the comic book film cliché of a climactic showdown composed of several mini-battles. Yet, to be free of Cap and Iron Man and the infinity stones for a while, to see faces that are different from the ones we normally see, to hear voices we aren’t used to hearing in Hollywood films, is its own thrill.