Directed by Ryan Coogler
Reviewed by Brandon Bishop
Black Panther tells the story of how T’Challa, Prince of the fictional Central Africa nation of Wakanda, played by Chadwick Boseman, becomes king following the death of his father, King T’Chaka, during the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The film is director Ryan Coogler’s third feature, following the fantastic films Fruitvale Station and Creed. With Black Panther, Coogler delivers another excellent film and a largely unique entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel films have created a formula for themselves that, while consistently producing entertaining cinema, has definitely become repetitive. The films tend to have similar structure and weak villains, while managing to be consistently entertaining and deliver some fantastic performances. Last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok shook up these formulas to a degree, with structures drastically differing from most other films in the franchise, and Spider-man: Homecoming gave us a much more compelling villain with Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, also known as The Vulture. Black Panther breaks the formula with a truly unique setting, story, and a fantastic villain portrayed by frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan.
The setting and production design of Black Panther truly set it apart from the rest of the MCU. The fictional country of Wakanda is an isolationist nation that, unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, possesses the most advanced technology in the world. That technology comes juxtaposed with Wakanda’s government and social structure, which boasts a tribal dynamic. Costumes and sets bristle with color, culture, and creativity, and the designs stand widely apart among the MCU films, many of which have begun to look and feel rather familiar. The film opens with a beautiful animatic sequence detailing the history of Wakanda, which not only feels effective, it looks like Wakandan technology, fitting in splendidly with the proceedings. And to add another layer, parts of the film joyously emulate spy films like the James bond franchise or aspects of Pixar’s The Incredibles, combining into a setting that is all its own and completely believable.
Michael B. Jordan steals the show here as Erik Killmonger, in a fascinating and charismatic role that breaks the trend of uninteresting villains. He plays a young American with ties to Wakanda and brings eloquently believable motivations to the table. He simply wants the best for his people, but is willing to be more aggressive in achieving his goals than others in Wakanda, including King T’Challa. Jordan delivers a commanding but incredibly earnest performance, and stands among the most interesting villains in comic book films.
Chadwick Boseman delivers a strong, if understated performance as T’Challa. His role could have used a little more levity. He’s good, and certainly has his charming moments, but overall his role comes off a little stoic. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, because he’s a king. Andy Serkis of The Lord of the Rings and the rebooted Planet of the Apes Trilogy returns in his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as an over-the-top and delightfully bizarre arms dealer. Also notable are Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as a friend of T’Challa and the leader of another tribe in Wakanda, Forrest Whitaker as a Wakandan Shaman, Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave and Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a former lover of T’Challa, and Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead as the leader of the Wakandan Royal Guard, a fighting force of considerable skill comprised of all women.
The pacing of the movie seems a little odd at times, but it moves pretty fast overall. It benefits from not exactly being an origin story, but also not starting completely in medias res. Michael B. Jordan’s character unfortunately disappears for much of the first hour or so after he gets introduced, but this portion of the film also delivers the better action sequences of the movie. The most interesting fight sequence happens quite early on, when T’Challa, as the legendary Black Panther, interferes with a convoy of poachers. Black Panther fights with an unusual array of attacks and utilizes a sort of offensive acrobatics, of which we got our first glimpses of in Civil War, but gets truly fleshed out here.
One trend that Black Panther does not escape from is the big finale, wherein the hero fights essentially an evil version of himself. Like Iron Man and Doctor Strange before it where the villains had quite similar powers to the heroes, when T’Challa and Killmonger come to blows, they look quite similar to the point that it’s difficult to see what’s going on, because they are both wearing their own versions of the Black Panther armor. They are differentiated by the colored highlights on the suits, but since they movie rapidly and are frequently CGI, it can be difficult to tell them apart. It’s a big disappointment because Killmonger’s portrayal is otherwise impeccable.
Unfortunately, the CGI during the final confrontations leaves much to be desired, but it is redeemed by a thoroughly satisfying conclusion in the midst of a huge battle involving a number of Wakandan warriors, as well as some surprises.
Black Panther brings a truly unique voice to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and to superhero films in general. Ryan Coogler is three-for-three.