In Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) has crafted a nearly perfect solo film for the eponymous African Superhero. The film has all of the visual appeal, action, and expert world-building that we have come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In addition, Coogler instills the film with superlatives that are rarely attached to the MCU: a noteworthy and complex villain, a rich political subtext, and a truly thematic conflict. It is likely too early to crown Black Panther as the greatest anything, but it is folly to ignore the power behind such an exemplary film.
The plot of Black Panther can roughly be described as an origin story that describes how King T’Challa assumes the mantle of The Black Panther from his father after the events of Captain America: Civil War. The rules of succession in Wakanda are steeped in tradition. These involve elaborate councils, ritualistic combat, and even psychedelic ( / spiritualistic) flowers. The first act of the film closely follows T’Challa’s ascendance to King of Wakanda and how he handles his new responsibilities. When Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) pops up on the radar for stealing a Wakandan artifact, T’Challa pledges to finally catch the villain as a way to honor his father’s legacy. Unbeknownst to him, Klaue and his associates have some secrets rolled up their sleeves that will make things exceedingly difficult.
While watching all of this unfold, the spectator is treated to the visual delights of Black Panther. The look starts with a very African aesthetic: bright royal colors; extravagant piercings, tattoos, and body alterations, and a rustic kind of traditionalism. But then, there’s a magnificent contrast: sleek architecture, advanced science, and a mechanical kind of futurism. These antithetical ideas exist in many aspects of Black Panther – tradition vs. advancement, past vs. future, and the isolation of the old vs. the globalism of the new. These complicated ideologies are reflected in the very look of the film, in the visual aspects, and that is a monumental achievement. But these ideas aren’t relegated to pretty colors and CGI.
Most films (especially comic book films) struggle to contain even a semblance of a theme beyond “Good triumphs over evil” or, “teamwork is cool”. Black Panther tackles ideas like legacy, isolationism, subjugation and reparation, and even racial warfare by weaving these themes in every aspect of the movie. The aesthetic contrast set up by juxtaposing the traditional tribalism of African culture with the hyper-advanced science fiction feel of Wakanda is merely the tip of the iceberg. T’Challa must deal with decisions made by his father in the past and the reverberations that they have in present-day Wakanda. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Black Panther is how each separate plot element supports the overall theme and the conflict at the heart of the movie: T’Challa’s struggle to understand Wakanda’s place in the world.
Everything comes together in a single element of the film, one that practically every other MCU film has struggled with: the villain, a man named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan in his third amazing role in a Ryan Coogler film). In Black Panther, the ultimate villain isn’t just a souped-up version of the Black Panther (though there is a hint of that), or a tired space elf or some other weird thing. It’s a fellow Wakandan, wronged by the sins of Wakanda’s dogged desire towards isolationism. He has a philosophy, a viewpoint, and is willing to die to champion it. And, what’s more impressive, there’s legitimacy to his views. One feels the tension between T’Challa’s outlook and Killmonger’s, as if both struct options have failings (and features). This is often the way in the real world, and Black Panther dramatizes this conflict beautifully.
However, I don’t want to simply gush all over Black Panther, as the film certainly has a few weaknesses. Certain action sequences are a bit droll, especially the mid-film car chase, and at times it can feel like the film is a little to on-the-nose with its political themes. Even the CGI isn’t foolproof – there are a few instances where a whirling Black Panther looks a little too streamlined and doll-like, which is frankly quite surprising for a Marvel film. Still, these are all minor nitpicks – Black Panther knocks so much out of the park that it is trivial to forgive it a few strikeouts.
Someday, we may look back on the One-Two Punch of Wonder Woman and Black Panther as a turning point, a time where large studios finally realized that great films can draw overwhelming crowds and outstanding monetary returns without a white male as the focus. Great stories are great stories, and each novel perspective can add great value to the public discourse and the state of film. Here’s to hoping that the monstrous salvo from Black Panther is merely one of the first instances of fresh, new perspectives being championed by the Hollywood establishment.