By Daniel Howat
Final Score: 8/10
Long live the King.
It would have been so easy for Black Panther to be just another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It could have been a light but fun popcorn film, with a disposable villain and forgettable story. It could have been Black Panther fighting crime in America alongside a dozen bland white guys. Instead, we get director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, a film full of distinct style, strong characters, and representation. Don’t get me wrong, this film fits fully into the mold of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that’s not an insult. It simultaneously brings something new and different to the table while still making sense in the Universe.
Black Panther picks up as Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to be crowned King after his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War. The film takes place almost entirely in Wakanda, the fictional country in the heart of Africa hidden from the outside world. Thanks to rich deposits of vibranium, Wakanda is light years ahead of the rest of the world’s technology. Flying ships, powerful weapons, and lifesaving medical devices, their knowledge is vast, but they’ve kept it all to themselves. As expected, T’Challa’s rise to the throne won’t come without a test or two.
In building the world of Wakanda, you can feel the creativity bursting at the seams. No other Earth-set Marvel film has felt this unique. It doesn’t take long to settle into this world, the culture, the people, and the customs. The costumes, the tech, the tribes - it’s all stunning. Aiding the feel of this world is Ludwig Göransson’s percussive, electric, and orchestral score. Everything feels drastically different in Wakanda, giving Black Panther a remarkable vibe that sets it apart.
Also setting Black Panther apart are the fully-fleshed out characters inhabiting the world. Black Panther himself is great, but the supporting cast constantly takes center stage. The Wakandan women are strong and imposing fighters, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a gifted technician, using vibranium to come up with innovative new weapons and technology. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is a Wakandan spy and fighter, and also the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. These women (and many more!) are powerful and defend their people with strength like we’ve rarely seen on screen. Ulysses Klaue, the only outsider to plague the nation for decades, is played with glee by Andy Serkis.
Still, there’s no question who gives the best performance in the film. Michael B. Jordan gives us something rare in a Marvel film: a well-rounded, believable, and frightening villain. As Killmonger, using Klaue to get into Wakanda, Jordan is real and full of depth. He’s a challenger to the throne and seeks to use Wakanda’s resources to overthrow governments around the world. This is Coogler and Jordan’s third film together, and Jordan consistently brings charisma and natural swagger to every role. He outshines Boseman’s Black Panther, though that makes for an interesting conflict.
The plot itself isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but they make up for it in style and setting. For a good portion of the film, as our heroes are trying to gain intel on Klaue, it feels almost like a spy thriller. A scene in a casino, though a familiar setup, felt different for a Marvel film, with more espionage than cartoonish action. We also get more intimate fight scenes than we’re used to, as the challengers to the throne fight T’Challa in hand-to-hand combat. These are some of the best scenes in the film, with some brutal action that works really well to establish the stakes of the throne. Of course, as with all Marvel movies, it does delve into some extended CGI fight scenes in the end. T’Challa and Killmonger’s climactic battle feels fairly bland, especially in comparison to the exhilarating fight going on above them. The women of Wakanda fight off Killmonger’s forces in broad daylight, giving a fantastic battle sequence.
Though this is a Marvel film, with many of the traditional trappings of the genre, Coogler manages to bring as many of his own sensibilities as he can. Killmonger’s backstory takes place in Oakland, California, Coogler’s hometown. It grounds the movie much more than I anticipated it would. There’s righteous anger inside Killmonger for many reasons, including from what he witnessed growing up in that city. Oppression, chaos, death - not just there but around the world. Killmonger is angry, and maybe rightfully so, but he takes his anger too far. He’s great opposition for T’Challa, who is angry too but with more restraint.
Black Panther is a fantastic superhero movie, but it’s also impossible to separate the film from what it represents. It’s a film that represents representation. It’s not just full of black actors, but black culture through and through. It has badass women in power. We may be 18 films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this is a gigantic step in the right direction. Black Panther is a fresh entry into the superhero genre, and an important entry into the world of film.