It is easy to forget, with how fast, quick, and consistently Marvel pumps out several successful films a year, that there are some really talented filmmakers behind that machine. Some filmmakers stick out more than others like Jon Favreau’s directorial work on the original Iron Man or the directing work of Russo Brothers’ with the Captain America sequels, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or even Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok. There is some quality filmmaking being done within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This has not been more apparent than Marvel’s latest film, the Ryan Coogler directed film, Black Panther. Coogler, director of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame, is now 3 for 3 with Black Panther. Black Panther is a thoughtful, beautiful, and a well-told classical story of kings, thrones, and family set against the backdrop of the MCU and Africa.
Now that we are 18 films deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of the films have a tendency to rely on one another and build off the previous films with less of them being able to stand on their own (which is natural in a long series). Black Panther stands almost completely on its own with only minor references to previous films (and all of it is explained in the movie). It was refreshing to see a Marvel movie stand on its own and not be dependent on other characters and cameos. The story takes place directly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. The King of Wakanda is dead and his son T’Challa has to ascend to the throne and become the leader he was born to be. Fueled by doubt and worry over the future of Wakanda, T’Challa is challenged by a mercenary by the name of Killmonger who has a mysterious connection to T’Challa and intends to take over the throne of Wakanda at any cost.
If you’re getting a bit of a Lion King feeling to the sounds of the plot you wouldn’t be wrong and besides sounding like Lion King is never a bad thing. But this is more of a virtue from the classical style of storytelling that Coogler brings out in the movie. Black Panther, perhaps more than any Marvel movie that has come up to this point, feels more like the classical hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell has written extensively about. Black Panther is much more focused on characters and spirituality than spectacle. The spectacle is there, but the most interesting parts of this movie are the arc and the development of Black Panther’s wide cast of characters.
One of the most interesting parts of that journey is the villain Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Marvel has had many lackluster villains over the course of their 18 film run (with the exception of Loki and a handful of others), but Killmonger rises above all of them to become the best villain of the MCU and also arguably the best part about Black Panther. This isn’t to take anything away from Chadwick Bosman as Black Panther and T’Challa, he also gives a great performance, but Michael B. Jordan steals the show with his multi-layered and down to Earth portrayal of a villain that has been hurt by our heroes. Killmonger does what good villains should do: challenges the status quo of the hero and sees themselves as the hero. Killmonger’s methods are disagreeable, but his motivation is understandable, especially when Coogler wisely takes the time to mirror and explore Killmonger’s journey against T’Challa’s.
To be completely honest, as good as Bosman is as T’Challa (who really got his grand introduction in Captain America: Civil War), the villains to steal the show a bit and not just Michael B Jordan but Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Serkis gets to have the most fun in this movie playing the crazy and over the top secondary villain and wow he looks like he is having a blast in this movie.
The rest of the cast also brings it. Daniel Kaluuya plays a pivotal role to great effect. Martin Freeman is always a fun casting choice. Lupita Nyong’o is good in the movie but isn’t quite the standout I thought she was going to be. Danai Gurira is a stand out as the fierce Okoye along with Letitia Wright as Shuri, the Q of this universe.
Black Panther does have that Lion King feel, but there are also times where this movie feels right at home with a James Bond movie (whether it’s the gadgets or the scenes in Korea that feel very Skyfall inspired.
While in Korea, there is a great car chase scene that is beautifully designed and shot by now Oscar-nominated cinematography Rachel Morrison. Most of the action scenes in Black Panther are well done (especially the ritual duels) but there are a few times where the action is a little choppy with quick rapid-fire editing that makes it a bit hard to make out what was going on (especially in the opening action scene where the Black Panther suit blends too much in the darkness of the scene). But when the action is clicking, the action is great fun to watch. Just don’t expect the quality of the Creed fight scenes here with Black Panther.
Black Panther’s action scenes succeed because of the strength of the story and themes (similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films). Black Panther has more on its mind than most superhero films and most Marvel films at that. Whereas Captain America: Winter Soldier is very politically minded, Black Panther is more social-minded. Coogler’s film explores race and issues directly dealing with Africa and Wakanda’s place on the continent. The movie is also very generational minded as both T’Challa and Killmonger are dealing with questions is how to move forward socially despite a long-standing culture of tradition. The movie isn’t heavy-handed and presents and explores these issues within the context of a great story and well-tuned characters.
The world of Wakanda is brilliantly brought to life by Coogler. This feels like a living and breathing society with a lot of intricate culture and history. I’ve always felt that other filmmakers missed a chance to really bring the world of Asgard to life in the Thor movies and thankfully Coogler takes every opportunity he can get to explore a different aspect of Wakanda to avoid that mistake.
There are few minor flaws with Black Panther. The special effects are occasionally a little too noticeable, some fight scenes are a little choppy, and there is a point in the story where I wish the movie took a little more time to expand out the story more. It felt like at times this movie didn’t have the budget to be as grand as it wanted to be. But these are minor critiques that don’t hurt the movie in the grand scheme of things.
I was worried going into the movie that this simply wouldn’t match up to the large amount of hype and expectations that this movie built up (I was a bit let down last year with Spider-Man: Homecoming in this regard) but Black Panther is a very good movie. Black Panther is a well-told classical story with the MCU’s best villain(s), that is beautiful and thoughtful and the best Marvel movie since Captain America: Winter Soldier.