Review: Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther is an honest-to-God cultural behemoth, dominating the pop-culture conversation (in February of all months) and on route to possibly becoming the highest grossing film ever in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not a bad feat for the first film starring a black lead in the MCU. It’s important that a film that comes with this much cultural expectation (like last year’s Wonder Woman) actually be good, and luckily, like Patty Jenkins’ film before it, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a sturdy reminder of what a good superhero blockbuster looks like.
Beyond that, Black Panther is actually interesting as a film, not just as an extension of the Marvel brand or a tease of things to come. The characters are compelling, the conflict is justified, and Ryan Coogler adds enough nuance and thematic weight to the whole endeavour to make it more substantial than your average MCU film. That isn’t to say it is faultless. Like most superhero films, its ending descends into weightless action, and a few of its more potent themes are simply glanced over or undone in an effort to sustain the MCU’s continuity. But as a film serving a particular cultural and brand function, Black Panther is pretty damn good.
Black Panther picks up after Captain America: Civil War and follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he takes over as king of the technologically-advanced African nation of Wakanda. As T’Challa learns to be a good ruler and balance the interests of the various tribes and chieftains of Wakanda, he crosses paths with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American soldier who wants to infiltrate Wakanda and use its advanced resources to stoke revolution in the marginalized communities of the world. The plot is overly complicated like most comic book plots are, but it creates some potent conflict for the characters to contend with, exploring geopolitical issues as well as palace intrigue and blood feuds.
Black Panther draws on many influences, but perhaps none more than The Lion King, Disney’s last African-set blockbuster that captured the imaginations of young people in North America back in the 1990s. Like The Lion King, Black Panther is obsessed with what it means to be a good king and how to differentiate yourself from a beloved father that was taken too soon. Beyond that, both films have the young king driven by feelings of guilt for failing to save his father, both films have the villain be a pretender to the throne who wants a superficially more-egalitarian mode of rule, and both films end with the hero embracing his role and moving his kingdom into a greater period of prosperity. Black Panther even draws on one of the most iconic images of The Lion King, when Mufasa appears in the clouds to talk to his grown son. Here, T’Challa enters an ancestral realm that looks like the African savannah to speak to his own deceased father, T’Chaka (John Kani), and ask him how to be a good ruler. The rich purples and blues of the scene in Black Panther are obvious callbacks to the colours of the Disney animated film.
The reference points of Black Panther don’t end with The Lion King. A key sequence in a South Korean casino recalls the Macao scenes from Skyfall, with T’Challa playing a suave, black James Bond with his closest female allies (Danai Gurira’s General Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o’s spy, Nakia) aiding him much as Moneypenny does in that film, while Killmonger’s single-minded devotion to unseating T’Challa and even his impressive physique recall the menace of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (a fight scene between T’Challa and Killmonger on the edge of a waterfall essentially recreates Batman and Bane’s fight in the sewers of Gotham City).
Killmonger is the film’s greatest strength, not only because of Michael B. Jordan’s pure star-wattage, which makes Killmonger more charismatic than T’Challa, but also because his motivation is largely noble. He sees Wakanda as betraying the plight of marginalized black people throughout the world by staying in the shadows of geopolitics and maintaining an isolationist policy in the face of injustice. The film even agrees with him for the most part, forcing T’Challa to adopt most of his stances with the only caveat being that he disagrees on the righteousness of violence in fomenting change.
Villains have long been a weakness in Marvel films (only Loki, Vulture, and possibly Ultron register as memorable villains over the course of 17 films), so it’s refreshing to see Killmonger as a genuine threat and a compelling character with well-constructed motivations. He gives the film its most potent themes aside from the duties of kingship. In fact, he’s so successful a character, he essentially overwhelms the rest of the film and shows how conservative the MCU game plan is. There is a stunning sequence of events around two-thirds of the way through the movie involving Killmonger that hint at a more fascinating, more challenging Marvel movie than anything we’ve seen before. However, the needs of Marvel continuity and easy resolution make the logical developments of this sequence impossible, showing that Marvel will never commit to the potent ideas it hints at. I’m being vague so as to avoid overt spoilers, but suffice to say, Marvel sacrifices the greatness of Black Panther the film for the commercial viability of the larger series.
At least we still get a very good superhero movie within the confines allowed by the Marvel machine. The worldbuilding is detailed and tactile in a way you don’t usually see in Marvel films; not only is the use of colour in the costuming a breath of fresh air after the gritty desaturation of most blockbusters, but there are genuinely-inspired creations here—I’m thinking particularly of the design of Wakanda’s all-female royal guards, wearing red armour and sporting shaved heads. The action never manages to match the immediacy of Coogler’s last film, Creed, but there are a few good action scenes early on. A bare-chested brawl on the edge of a waterfall (not the same as the one I mentioned earlier) matches the intensity of some of the boxing matches in Creed, while the action in the aforementioned South Korean casino showcases the badassery of Gurira’s General Okoye; one shot has her riding on the top of a car during a chase through the streets of Busan, spear in hand, and her red dress billowing behind her like a vapor cone of a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier.
Unfortunately, later scenes give way to familiar Marvelisms, whether it’s the weightlessness of superhero action or the need for large numbers of CGI creations to do battle in a bland environment. The climax between T’Challa and Killmonger lacks the impact of their earlier confrontation, as the actors are replaced by CGI suits and Coogler’s restricted, handheld camera gives way to wide, undistinguished frames with too many cuts. Having a disappointing final fight is common to superhero movies (Wonder Woman also ended with a bland, CGI brawl), but this convention’s presence in Black Panther is more proof of how this film pushes against the limitations of big-budget superhero movies but doesn’t break free of them.
Finally, a word on representation and diversity on screen: it’s safe to say that Black Panther means a lot to many black viewers. The preview screenings were packed with black filmgoers dressed to the nines in their finest dashikis or homemade versions of T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s regal outfits in the film. The response to the movie itself has been elation, with viewers overwhelmed by the obvious care and attention given to making a film that doesn’t just pay lip service to blackness. It’s folly for a white critic to judge a film on whether it’s sufficiently black enough, but from viewing people’s reactions to Black Panther, clearly the film has struck a chord.
Black Panther will never solve (and is not meant to solve) the issues of marginalization and systemic racism that plague black people in North America, but it’s nice to have a big film that speaks so strongly to an audience that is usually ignored or targeted as a limited demographic by the suits behind big-budget Hollywood entertainment. Representation alone does not make a film good (or bad), but when representation and race do become a big part of the conversation around a film, it’s nice to see filmmakers rise to the challenge and make something that’s worth getting excited about.
Black Panther is not the greatest superhero film ever made nor the first big Hollywood movie with a black lead or cast (or even the first superhero film with a black lead—remember Blade?), but it is a significant and innovative film in a genre that dominates the Hollywood system. The fact that it exists and is good is a welcome development in modern popular cinema.
8 out of 10
Black Panther (2018, USA)
Directed by Ryan Coogler; written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole; starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis.