Reviewed by Eddie Daou
Marvel has shown us robots, super-soldiers, wizards, aliens, giant ants, and a talking raccoon, but nothing they’ve made before can prepare you for the world of Black Panther. In Marvel’s newest outing, we’re taken to one of the most integral locations in Marvel comics for the first time in 18 films: Wakanda.
Black Panther sees T’Challa returning to the big screen after his cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War, this time taking center stage in a story of his trials and tribulations as King. Featuring an ensemble cast of all-star performers and an amazing Kendrick Lamar soundtrack, Black Panther delivers on every single bit of the hype surrounding and even succeeds the already sky high superhero movie expectations.
Making superhero blockbusters can get numbing to audiences over time, especially when they’re so similar to one another like the Marvel movies sometimes are. And the window to introduce new fans to the franchise is hard, especially when you’re 18 films in. And with the upcoming mega crossover Avengers: Infinity War and Disney’s recent acquisition of the X-Men franchise, audiences are rightfully starting to worry about these movies getting too big for their own good. It begs the question, what’s going to save Marvel from itself? But it seems like Black Panther is the answer.
Black Panther gained a huge cultural following before it was even released. Not only were Marvel fans excited, but people who don’t even follow the series were excited thanks to its diversity and Disney’s huge advertising push for it. Black Panther was getting bigger and bigger, showing up everywhere you looked, and it hadn’t even come out yet. It sends a clear message to Hollywood: diversity matters to audiences and the general public, and with movie theater ticket sales getting smaller and smaller every year, the time is up for Hollywood to start pushing diversity onscreen.
Black Panther is the spy / superhero / fantasy epic that you could have only dreamed of, brought to reality through the incredible journey of T’Challa to truly fulfill the role as King of Wakanda. And the country of Wakanda is truly unlike anything you’ve seen in any other large scale film. In hiding from the rest of the world for centuries, Wakanda is an insanely high-tech afro-futuristic city in Africa. The technology makes the cities of most future-set films look like child’s play, and it’s all thanks to their huge quantities of vibranium (the same metal that Captain America’s shield is made of) that powers everything. I could go even more in depth into Wakanda, but you really have to see it to truly do it justice. Avatar can call it quits right now, since we have the journey through a perfectly realized science-fiction world in this movie.
In Black Panther, T’Challa has to grapple with both how to stick to tradition and be a good leader while remaining a good man, as well as the emergence of Erik Killmonger, a dominant figure who challenges not only all of T’Challa’s morals, but his very mantle as King. While all of the action revolves around Black Panther vs. Killmonger, the real conflict is within T’Challa, who questions both his father’s legacy and his own throughout the course of the film.
Most superhero movies fail to juggle a huge ensemble cast of comic book characters (<cough>, Suicide Squad) but Black Panther knocks it out of the park with all the stars it has. Every single role is given something important to do, and most of them are filled with A-List actors as well. Chadwick Boseman is a Marvel as T’Challa, nailing every stoic moment, action beat, and comedic scene with ease. He’s a natural at playing a superhero that you look up to, and has a commanding presence that makes for a great king. Lupita Nyong’o is great as usual, in the role of Wakandan spy / T’Challa’s love interest Nakia. Danai Gurira has more badassery as Okoye in this movie than she’s had as Michonne in her last few seasons of The Walking Dead. Martin Freeman delivers as the point-man-type to T’Challa’s James Bond-type, and learns a lot about true diplomacy along the way. Letitia Wright is delightful as T’Challa’s little sister Shuri, giving the film a needed sense of humor and delivering some of the films funniest moments as well. But surprisingly, the comedic breakout of the film is M’Baku, who has the biggest laughs in Black Panther thanks to Winston Duke’s terrific performance. The cast is rounded out by terrific performances by Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Sterling K. Brown, who stand out even with their smaller roles.
Marvel isn’t famous for having great villains, but Black Panther turns the tables on expectations and delivers some incredible villain performances. First, there’s Ulysses Klaue. Returning after a short introduction in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Klaue is mercenary / weapons dealer with a vendetta against Wakandans, He is both scary and funny at the same time, and Andy Serkis proves that not only is he an intense actor under CGI, but he can also give fantastic performances without it as well. But the best acting in the film, and easily the best part of the entire movie is Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. The depth he brings to his character is outstanding - while Killmonger’s methods are violent and ruthless, he comes from a place that the audience can understand. Killmonger is the perfect supervillain: when he acts, you’re shocked at his evil, but when he speaks, you can’t help but understand where he’s coming from. Erik Killmonger is not only one of the best Marvel movie villains, but one of the best superhero villains of all time.
Every bit of effort that director Ryan Coogler puts behind the camera shows up on screen. After Fruitvale Station and Creed, Coogler delivers his biggest movie yet in Black Panther, and he still retains the deeply personal feel that both of those films had and brings it to work here. It’s hard making a blockbuster feel true to its director, and even harder when it’s something being monitored by by Disney and its huge committees. But Coogler manages to do the impossible and puts together a completely unique action movie that stands out among all of its predecessors. It’s my favorite of all his films to date, with all of its precisely done action and slick fight scenes. Ryan Coogler makes the rare superhero film that’s plentiful in both style and substance. Coogler takes many different risks here, and every single one pays off, showing how studios need to be making less boring “more of the same” movies that we’ve all seen a million times before and more auteur blockbusters that actually go for it and try something new and original.
As a huge Marvel fan, I can say without question that Black Panther is one of their very best outings. A truly great comic book movie can deliver both a true-to-the-comics tale that satisfies the die hard fans and also opens the door for new fans to get involved in the comics. Black Panther does exactly that, by bringing tons of Black Panther comic book lore to the screen and acting as the perfect gateway into the world of the comics at the same time. Unlike most Marvel movies, there aren’t any major connections to previous Marvel films, and anything you haven’t seen is recapped in the film. And best of all, Black Panther feels insanely unique when compared to other Marvel films. The last Marvel movie before Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, felt like Marvel at its laziest: making a big, dumb movie that covers up a cliched story and villain with lazy humor to distract viewers. That kind of formula does make finely fun movies, but it doesn’t craft something with actual substance. It followed the same old Marvel movie template, which was a huge disappointment after the character-focused and uniquely structured Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But Black Panther doesn’t go down that same pitfall. The world it creates actually feels real, and if anything it’s the perfect palate-cleanser to restore your faith in the Marvel brand before their gargantuan mega-crossover Avengers: Infinity War swings into theaters in May. But I will say that I’m actually worried that Avengers: Infinity War won’t be as good as Black Panther. Unless Infinity War also has a Kendrick Lamar soundtrack, its got one tough act to follow.
The best scene in Black Panther isn’t a huge action set piece, or a comedic bit, or a Marvel tie-in, it’s a scene with a father talking to his son. Killmonger has a flashback / vision to his childhood, where his father first told him about Wakanda. His father describes the wonders of it, the beauty of its sunsets, but with an underlying tinge of sadness with the knowledge that him and his son can never go back there. Killmonger wonders if it’s not that they’re lost from home, but if they’re home itself is lost. It’s the underpinnings of one of the best villains in comic book movie history, and the fact that such a quiet and subtle scene made its way into a big-budget spectacle film is incredible. Black Panther matters, and seeing all of the reactions outside of the showing I went to proved it even more to me. People were cheering, crying, laughing, and absolutely hyped after watching it. Onscreen diversity matters - this movie means so much to so many people, and Marvel gives audiences not only what they’ve been asking for years for, but everything they deserve. Black Panther is anything and everything you hoped for.