Right out of the gate, let’s get clear that “Black Panther” is good. Not great, perhaps, but definitely good.
It’s a difficult film to qualify otherwise, because, among an eclectic spate of films that already inhabit the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” is wholly unique, attempting things we’ve seen in other mediums, perhaps, but not in a comic book film. The movie is stacking up rave reviews across multiple forms of media, and it seems pertinent to mention that this isn’t only because of the film’s quality, but also its subject matter and its timing.
For the uninitiated, “Black Panther” chronicles T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, who returns home to the secluded nation of Wakanda to take his place on the throne. Meanwhile, villainy arises that not only threatens T’Challa’s claim to the kingdom, but also the invaluable resources that Wakanda has hidden from the outside world for centuries.
The last decade of comic book cinema has quickly taught us that these movies live or die by the writer and director helming them. It’s the reason why the DC films directed by Christopher Nolan are so good while the DC films directed by Zack Snyder are not, despite being shaped from the same source material. Every film needs a leader who knows how a story is told.
Having said that, it seems likely that the secret to Black Panther’s success is co-writer/director Ryan Coogler. His previous two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, were both acclaimed dramatic works praised for their fleshed-out characters with established arcs. That praise alone ought to make a director worthy of helming a comic book film; it’s a genre that is inherently character driven, and Coogler seems a savvy enough filmmaker to understand that characters should come first no matter the film’s genre.
The character work in “Black Panther” is truly the glue holding the house together; not only is Black Panther himself a well-realized protagonist (already coming off of an established palette in “Captain America: Civil War”), but all of the film’s supporting characters are separate individual entities themselves, and each have clear reasons for being in the story. That’s not even touching on the film’s villain, who is so intrinsically tied to the arcs of other major characters, it would almost seem the film couldn’t happen without him — that’s a nice change from simply “bad guy who shows up”, which even other good MCU films have been guilty of offering.
The film maintains the MCU sheen we’ve all grown accustomed to, with its snazzy visuals and the casual tossing around of familiar vernacular like “vibranium”. However, the big surprise of “Black Panther” is that, for its 134-minute runtime, it’s surprisingly light on conventional action. The movie has loftier ambitions for its hero than simply fighting aliens from space or chasing down a magical Macguffin. At its core, “Black Panther” is a film about privilege and responsibility, with a script that seems more keen to discuss the consequences of national leadership and the proper maintenance of ancestral legacy. In that light, the movie echoed “Hamlet” or “The Lion King” more than “Iron Man”.
That’s why it seems important to distinguish this film more as a “comic book movie” and less as a “superhero movie”. Black Panther is heroic, but he’s not a superhero in the conventional sense. He’s a combative diplomat interested in the good of generations long after him. He’s a more long-form thinker than the likes of a standard superhero.
On the topic of national leadership, “Black Panther” releases at a curious time in our history. T’Challa’s nation has made a point to intentionally seclude themselves from the outside world, due to the fear of its bottomless wealth of vibranium falling into the hands of evildoers. The isolationist elements echo current states of affairs for more nations than just ours, and it’s compelling to think about power as a problem only dependent on whomever is wielding it.
That’s another nice thing about “Black Panther” — it leaves you thinking on the way out the door more than other big-budget blockbusters could ever hope to.
If I had any criticisms at all, I’d chalk them up to a few predictable story beats in the second act. Once the identity of the film’s major villain is fully revealed, it’s immediately clear what his plan likely is, and one might watch that plan play out with a slight sense of impatience. I can’t help but wonder if a few scenes could have been condensed or edited differently to maintain a more satisfying pace.
Also, there were moments in which the expansive green-screen backdrops were a bit too obviously green-screen backdrops, as though the on-set lighting didn’t quite mesh with the CGI landscape added in post-production. Ultimately, this mattered very little, though, since the story itself was compelling enough as any scene’s main focus.
Lastly, I could easily talk extensively about the film’s racial commentary, but I wonder at this juncture if doing so would be moot. You may hear a couple of loud voices (if you haven’t already) criticizing “Black Panther” for its pre-dominantly black cast, but most forget that this criticism is likely coming from an American perspective toward a story that is decidedly un-American. The people of Wakanda are pre-dominantly dealing with resource distribution as in issue, not racial disparity.
In a way, “Black Panther” is a film that some of us don’t deserve, because it lifts itself far above a lot of the issues that continue to wrack modern first-world society. Controversial though it may be, the film seems uninterested in directly acknowledging racism, because perhaps the film knows that racism, as an enterprise, is inherently ludicrous.
However, the movie’s enormous opening speaks volumes, too. It’s terrific for kids of all sorts to have heroes to idolize, and though “Black Panther” isn’t the first film to depict a heroic man of color, it does so with more brazen regality than any other film in recent memory.
Knowing exactly what they would get, the American public just drove “Black Panther” to record box-office heights in its opening weekend. Despite the message of disparity we’re so often inundated with as Americans, this film’s achievement may stand as a testament to the fact that most of us have a common understanding: we’re all in this together, and good movies deserve support.
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