Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
First things first. Marvel movies are no longer really movies, if they ever were to begin with. As a vast commercial machine existing to appease demographics, set up larger cogs, and continue into infinity (and Infinity Wars, natch), the franchise assembly line resists subversion just based on the business model alone. Moments of inspiration, wit, and creativity can still be found within these constraints, but such moments have been fleeting.
Of course, this is all well and good, depending on perspective. These things are designed to be lobotomizing sedatives; fueling fanboy nostalgia and escapism to the point where the artistic merits of the films themselves become irrelevant. However, what happens when filmmakers with actual discernible talent get tossed into the fray? The results might look something like writer-director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther; a Marvel product through and through--with standard plotting, fake CGI action, and mandated Stan Lee cameo--but also real emotion, dramatic stakes, and committed performances struggling against formula.
An animated prologue featuring N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) narrating the history behind the fictional African nation of Wakanda as well as the origins of a powerful metal called vibranium, sets the stage effectively without the need for unnecessary character introductions; although we do get a flashback to Oakland, Ca circa 1992, where a young N'Jobu has exiled himself due to differences of opinion regarding Wakanda's place in the realm of foreign aid. T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), N’Jobu’s brother and Wakanda’s king, shows up unannounced and during an intense exchange, murders him, setting in motion a tale of the sin's of the father being passed to their sons. In this case, the next in line to rule Wakanda is T'Chaka's son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who will eventually become the titular hero, and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the son of N'Jobu who has his own ideas about usurping the throne.
If all of this sounds like a convoluted set-up en route to the usual superhero shenanigans, Coogler's sensitive handling of his character's emotional pathology means that Black Panther is the rare Marvel movie in which dramatic stakes actually play a significant role. Meanwhile, the visual representation of Wakanda as a utopian society free from colonialism and hiding from the horrors of the rest of the world is a bold synergizing of Afro-futurism and indigenous folklore. The bursts of color--from the tribal costumes, jewelry, natural hairstyles, and evocative natural landscapes --is painstakingly detailed, aided by composer Ludwig Göransson and Senegalese musician Baaba Maal's percussively rhythmic score, which especially roars to life during hand-to-hand combat sequences atop a waterfall. Throughout the moments set in Wakanda, one can sense a deeply impassioned undercurrent simmering underneath the shabby veneer of the Marvel playbook, giving us something we haven't yet seen on this scale in a movie before; unadulterated, unashamed blackness.
There is a plot here, and it follows a pro forma trajectory, but what's most surprising is the film's commitment to emotional wounds. T’Challa’s rise to the throne after the death of his father is mirrored by the exploits of Killmonger, who joins forces with deranged baddie Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, non-motion captured and mugging wildly). Lupita Nyong’o's Nakia is more than simply a romantic interest to T'Challa; proving herself handy with both humanitarian efforts and weaponry, and spear-wielding female bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) shares affection for kickass moves as well as Daniel Kaluuya's W'Kabi, a local Wakanda resident who has high hopes for the new king's reign. Perhaps most inspired of all is the inclusion of Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's tech gadget wizard sister, who provides both brains and sassy attitude to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Killmonger has his own motivations for seeking the throne--driven more by pain and grief than standard issue villany--which gives the character a tragic dimension, embodied by Jordan with swagger and soulfulness.
There is only one major non-black character here; C.I.A. operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is mostly on hand to look befuddled in his whiteness surrounded by a throng of dark-skinned agents of authority. Mostly, though, Coogler wants to examine how people of color react to their own; culminating in the convergence of T'Challa and Killmonger's opposing ideologies, which of course, results in a physical battle as well. To that point, as successful as the film is in its exploration of human drama, it somewhat fails as a superhero action spectacle. This has been an ongoing problem with the Marvel films; as shoddy action choreography and subpar CGI has become par for the course, and Black Panther, for all it's inspired costuming and set-design, cannot overcome the Marvel house style. A James Bond-inspired shootout inside a casino is a lively highlight, and a prolonged car chase is fun for a while before eventually being dragged down by awkward staging and rubbery effects. Meanwhile, the snooze-inducing finale where charging CG Rhinos and tribes engage in a large-scale battle while Black Panther and Killmonger fall through corridors punching each other like video game avatars, undercuts much of what makes the film so special.
Of course, the example of representation on such a massive scale is a historic leap forward even if the film itself isn't revolutionary. The alt-right will likely boycott. Think pieces will be written at a fever pitch. Hashtags about wokeness will crop up. But will anyone actually remember the movie after the next deluge of Marvel ventures are shoved down our collective throats? Coogler's valiant attempts at reconfiguring a brand hopelessly tied to formula is important for a variety of reasons, but most of all, perhaps, is the idea of a young person of color looking up at the screen in awe; overwhelmed and empowered. They will remember. They will dream. They will reach into their past in order to inspire their future, and that matters.