Movie Review: Black Panther
By Ben Gruchow
February 27, 2018
They’ve finally gone and done it. After 17 films (yeah, I had to go to Wikipedia and count), which translates to about 36 hours of bright, colorful brand installments—legitimately impressive in their consistency, overall quality, and sanded-down uniformity—Marvel Studios has produced a buzzy, energetic popcorn movie that’s also totally its own thing. Directed by Ryan Coogler from a screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther is above all a focused piece of storytelling; so intent is it on moving each component of its own story and setting forward, and so committed is it to its vision, that we barely even notice by the end that there’s been no whisper of the larger Marvel story beyond the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. Miracle of miracles, there’s actually escalating tension and a sense of stakes as the story winds toward an all-out final battle that a) doesn’t take place in the sky; b) doesn’t reset the game board once it’s over, and c) tracks character development as well as it tracks flying CGI people. It feels downright subversive.
Coming back to Earth a bit: Context must be taken into account somewhere down the line here, and it’s true that the movie’s successes gleam a little less distinctly when you take away the handicap of its stablemates being blandly competent. It’s also true that the best of anything is always relative…and the things that are good are still really damn good divorced of all context: the antagonist, without question the best villain from a character standpoint that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet produced; the production and art design of Wakanda, unfamiliar and yet recognizably human and terrestrial and tactile in a way that places it outside of both the “real-world” locations of an Iron Man and the more outlandish settings of Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy; the echoes of nationalism and tribalism given as ideals by both protagonists and antagonists, echoes that require more skillful navigation than most tentpole blockbusters are prepared to deal with.
The movie assumes its viewers remember relatively little about its title character; the Black Panther made his introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War as Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), heir to the throne of what appears to be a poverty-stricken Third World nation of Wakanda and brought to prominence in the plot of that film when his father was killed by a terrorist bomb. The Panther is another guy in a suit and mask, but he was animated by grief and revenge, and he was frequently the most interesting person onscreen. Now there’s a world to complement the character. Wakanda actually rests on a deposit of vibranium, which is the most versatile metal on the planet (and presumably second in value only to unobtainium). about to take on the mantle of king, in a ceremony of challenge where his Wakandan tribe—ostensibly the dominant one—must face a challenge from one of the other four tribes in the nation. The victor is not only crowned king, but imbued with the supernatural abilities of the Black Panther. So firm is T’Challa’s hold on the responsibilities of power that almost nobody cares to challenge him, and the exception is not one for long.
All of this is just the curtain-raiser, though. There is a bigger danger than a competing tribe, and it comes in the form of Klaue (Andy Serkis) and a weapon made from stolen Wakandan vibranium, and…hold on. I’ll come back to plot. Can we reflect for a moment on the previous sentence, and how miraculous it is that this entire opening stretch of the story avoids flying off the rails completely with the momentum of its own silliness? Narratives about much more intimate and grounded material have gone loopier faster. To this I attribute the drive and conviction of Coogler, Boseman, and the rest of the cast (even Serkis); like last year’s Wonder Woman/I>, this is a setup that could have gone wrong in a multitude of ways and right in only one or two, and the filmmakers found that one or two here. Coogler is clearly invested in the material, both in its source content and what can be developed out of it, and this imperative drives the film to always be at least one step ahead of the audience in knowing itself and what tonal shifts to take.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the introduction of Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) in a scene, set in a museum, setting in motion the primary conflict of the film in the context of the secondary conflict. Erik is ostensibly present in relation to the theft of more Wakandan vibranium, but watch the actor’s expressions, his eye movements, the way a sense of betrayal and indignation seeps into his tone in the smallest dialogue exchanges he has with a museum curator. It takes forty minutes or so for us to be clued in to the character’s ultimate motivation (although we can pretty easily guess it ahead of time), but the seeds of that character arc are universal and omnipresent right there in that museum scene.
The political analogies developing in between and in the course of this plot provide the most resonant components of the film: the head of one of the other tribes, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, masterful in last year’s Get Out) saw his father murdered at the hands of Klaue, and seems more committed to the idea of exacting justice personally than by the will of the nation. What develops from this one incident is the shape of a person willing to jettison the greater good for the individual reward either without being aware of doing so or without being willing to admit it, and it’s juxtaposed against the myriad other inflections of this ethic that pop up throughout most of the film’s characters and incident: the decisions to keep secret technology and tools that could benefit billions, for fear of a loss of heritage and national identity; the persistent narrative that outsiders offer aid and assistance primarily to serve their own ends. The final battle setpiece may be scaled to a massive degree, but the most emotionally volatile and tense moment during it comes in the form of a short and simple dialogue exchange between W’Kabi and his wife Okoye (Danai Gurira).
Okoye is the head of an all-female Wakandan secret service of sorts, a band of intelligence loyalists and warriors, and they help to illustrate Black Panther’s other, more predictable strength: its action sequences, which are tactile and clear-eyed in their composition and editing. There’s not a moment that hits the same sustained energy as that single-take boxing match from Creed, but there was never going to be; it’s more than good enough to have the degree of visual punch we get here from moments like the Panther’s nighttime air-drop onto a moving convoy of human traffickers in the middle of the jungle, or a computer-aided but invigorating tracking shot in an underground casino. These parts of the movie blend seamlessly with the dramatic moments, building toward climactic passages that actually have weight and a sense of catharsis. These are precisely the two things that have been most consistently lacking even in the most consequential of the MCU entries up to this point.
So yes, Black Panther is handily the best film of the Marvel lineup so far. It is not a great film in and of itself, which bothers me not a bit; I’ve avoided talking much about its liabilities as a story, because the movie operates so distinctly and consistently on an assured and confident level above most of its brethren. By that same token, though: films at this level of quality and capability still need a certain final urgency and clarity in order to push themselves over the line into being minor or major classics of the form, and the entirety of Black Panther falls short of that urgency by a remarkably thin margin—thin enough that, in the context of real-world national tensions and reexaminations of our history with regard to race and gender, the temptation to assess a very good film as a great one because of the way it naturally and confidently foregrounds reflective and insightful details is almost overwhelming. I look forward to a sequel (which is about as inevitable as inevitable can get when you romp out of the gate with almost a quarter of a billion dollars in domestic earnings alone) that will explore and elaborate on these themes and consequences, in even greater depth.
4.5 out of 5