Film Review – Black Panther
Perhaps to acknowledge the ways in which Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther succeeds, it’s first important to recognize the context of its positionality. At this point in the lineage of Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe, we’ve seen over the course of ten years and seventeen films an establishing of a brand. This has been to Marvel’s benefit in a lot of ways. Foremost it has created an allowance of a more straightforward, literal adaptation of their superhero properties. From costumes to character interpretations to mythos and storylines, Marvel has moved what was once treated as spatially separate in the cinematic realm into a collective with shared worlds and experiences.
Fans of comics have seen this model played out for decades, giving characters shared spaces in their individual titles, creating team-ups and crossovers and culminating in big Events where the status quo gets shaken up, people die, are reborn and the soap opera goes on. This type of brand though also means that homogenization play a certain role, where to be as broadly popular as the studio wants these things to be, there’s a belief that a certain level of safety needs to be played. Reinterpretations that see characters and mythology deviating from their heritage into newly imagined realms are considered antithetical to the brand. Evidenced to this, we’ve seen directors board and exit Marvel projects over creative differences where too much of a vision and voice were deemed as a deviation from the brand. This homogenization though goes beyond esthetic and into socially constructed spaces of race and gender.
Which brings this around to why Black Panther is quite an assured achievement. Coogler has found a way to transcend the model while existing inside it, adapting and recoding an established mythos to be as vital and urgent as transcending mythology should be in the context of superheroes. It really helps when you start with what’s clearly a stellar script. Joe Robert Cole and Coogler have crafted a story that dips directly into the Black Panther’s fifty-two year history and combined elements into a fully realized epic. Coogler’s sense of direction and storytelling bring the kind of highs and lows that make spectacle cinema like this exhilarating.
What makes this the most exciting cinema though, isn’t just a command of storytelling, but the way in which Coogler and company place this directly in the context of homogenization by way of representation. The story of the Black Panther begins in the fictional African country of Wakanda. On its surface Wakanda is a third world country, insulated and impoverished, and therefore written off as viable by white dominant cultures around the world. The story tells us a long time ago a meteor crashed into what is now Wakanda and delivered to its people the world’s strongest metal, vibranium. Wakanda secretly used this alien element to become the most advanced civilization on earth and hid themselves from it in the process. The manipulation of vibranium is what powers their society, from technology to their ruler, the Black Panther himself.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the prince of Wakanda, and becomes king after the passing of his father. The king inhabits the power of vibranium and with it becomes the Black Panther, the warrior and protector of Wakanda. Through the right resources that make the right kinds of technology possible, nations can wield the power to govern with their own sovereignty, colonize or choose to abstain. For purposes of survival in a world that otherwise seeks to subjugate and exploit, Wakanda has chosen to abstain. This decision is a contentious issue that is forced in the face of T’Challa and Wakanda when a man named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) emerges as a discarded descendant out for the crown.
Boseman is great as T’Challa, charming, witty and enthralling to watch, but Jordan’s performance as Killmonger is both understated and commanding. A lynchpin to focusing the various, complex threads that exist in the subtext by way of juxtaposition and reflection. Killmonger’s grievances are not without merit and T’Challa knows this. A lot of the greatest strengths here though belong to the women of Wakanda. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) spend a good deal of time chasing bad guys, providing counsel, innovating tech and saving the Black Panther, several times over.
Coogler made a solid decision to position this as a black James Bond. Some of the film’s most fun moments are when this is straight up acknowledging its Bond influences, gadgets in a Q Branch-type lab, a casino sequence, car chases and lots of well dressed people. It also plays directly into the themes of representation at the heart of this. The movie is smartly layered with ideas. Some are more drawn out and explored over the course of the movie and some are presented visually, while others exist in lines of dialog. Killmonger single-handedly delivers one of the most devastating and thought-provoking lines I’ve ever heard spoken in a superhero. The visuals, rich and absorbing, directly invite audiences into a culture drawn out into glorious exuberance. Make no mistake, this a movie worthy of as much study as it is praise.
Typical to the Marvel model though is still clunky action scenes, shot erratically and edited in quick, jumbled cuts to as hide some of the actors’ lesser fighting abilities. However, Danai Gurira is a force to be reckoned with when a spear is in hand and a foe in sight. A one, two-combo sequence of action exploding in a casino and leading to a car chases sees Gurira in some of the movie’s most thrilling moments. That is until the epic blowout finale that seriously does its level best to make sure all our characters do something particularly cool.
Fully embracing and celebrating its blackness, this is a movie that doesn’t just place representation at the forefront, it permeates the ways in which representation matters as means of existence. And how rightfully so. However, this isn’t great simply because it embraces these concepts, this is without a doubt the most complete movie Marvel Studios has made. Allowing Coogler to impose a voice on an existing mythos that in turns sprouts a new mythos, might be the greatest decision Marvel has made yet. The result is an emotional, electrifying journey into the world of Wakanda. Wakanda forever.