One of the best things one can say about Ryan Coogler's Black Panther is that it doesn't feel like most of the other Marvel films. This is not to say that most Marvel films are not enjoyable and even, at times, emotionally moving and thematically rich, it's just that the sheer number of them over the past decade has started to lay bare their reliance on certain narrative patterns, aesthetic tendencies, and character traits. They also tend to lean toward a "bigger is better" ideology (see the upcoming two-part Avengers: Infinity War barreling our way), which often results in overkill of some form or another. Thus, any kind of restraint has the welcome effect of refreshing our sense of what a comic book movie can be, reminding us that they don't always have to end with the entire world in danger of being destroyed.
The previous Marvel film with which Black Panther has the most in common is Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011), which was more interested in familial conflict, royal intrigue, power struggles, and fish-out-of-water comedy than massive setpieces involving superheroes saving the world entire. Black Panther, which is set largely in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, is similarly focused on character conflict and regal power struggles. The stakes are significant, but at the same time visually and narratively manageable; there are a lot of characters to keep track of and conflicting agendas and desires and secrets to be revealed, but Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson) keep it all in check with a distinct moral clarity that allows the villain to remain human while he heroes work through their flaws. Much of the plot hinges on a particularly bad decision made years earlier by the hero's father, who felt he was doing the right thing, but instead set in motion a series of events that end up threatening not just his legacy, but the entirety of his kingdom and all that his ancestors worked to build and maintain. It doesn't get much more Shakespearean than that.
The hero of the story is T'Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, who has previously played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) and James Brown in Get on Up (2014). T'Challa is the Black Panther of the title, the king of Wakanda, whose history and creation is explained in an opening monologue-how the discovery ages earlier of a massive meteorite made of a special metal called vibranium allowed a group of African tribes to come together and build a secret utopian society with advanced technologies that they kept hidden from the outside world. Everyone thinks that Wakanda is a poor, Third World nation that barely sustains itself with farming. (Black Panther trades heavily in Afrofuturism-the distinct aesthetic that merges the African diaspora with technoculture and is often embodied in science fiction literature and art-although that term was decades from being coined by when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced the character and his world back in 1966.) Every king of Wakanda takes on the mantle of the Black Panther, whose vibranium-laced suit makes him nearly invincible while his ingestion of a potion made from a special flower affected by the metal gives him superhuman strength and agility. Much of the plot revolves around T'Challa's becoming the new king of Wakanda and then losing the throne to Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops government assassin with a secret connection to Wakanda that undercuts T'Challa's family legacy.
The tension between T'Challa and Erik is one of the film's greatest assets, as they are diametrically opposed characters who, on the one hand, fit neatly into the hero and villain molds, yet their opposition is predicated on a decades-old grievous injury that essentially set Erik on a collision course with Wakanda and all it stands for. Central to the conflict is the question of whether Wakanda and its lineage are in the right to keep their advancements secret, essentially reveling in a hidden utopian world that merges ancient traditions with radically sophisticated technologies of travel, healing, and weaponry while much of the world suffers. Of course, the latter of those technologies poses a worldwide danger if it were to fall into the wrong hands, which is precisely what happens when Erik ascends to the throne and immediately moves to use all of Wakanda's resources to wage a new war against the centuries-old repressive structures that have suppressed people of color. As played by Michael B. Jordan, Erik is a kind of avenging angel whose violence is relentless, yet fueled by a clear ideological agenda that is not entirely wrong. His grievances are real, both personal and cultural, which gives his villainy a meaningful edge beyond the generic desire to rule (or destroy) embodied by so many comic book villains.
Black Panther is director Ryan Coogler's third film, following his debut Fruitvale Station (2013), which told the true story of a 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by police at a BART station in Oakland, and Creed (2015), his unexpectedly poignant and moving extension of the Rocky franchise (both of those earlier films also starred Michael B. Jordon). Each of Coogler's films has expanded in terms of scope and ambition, and his real achievement in Black Panther is that he doesn't let the requirements of the comic book movie overwhelm his better instincts. There is a lot that is fairly generic in the film, especially in the action sequences, which employ the same arsenal of aesthetic techniques we've seen time and time again, but you can always sense his investment in the characters and what they stand for. As a film that features an almost entirely black cast (the only exceptions being Andy Serkis as a particularly nasty mercenary and arms merchant and Martin Freeman as a CIA agent who ends up working with T'Challa), Black Panther is a standout in the largely white blockbuster world. That Coogler manages to work genuine racial issues into the film's narrative without turning it into a didactic ideological crusade is a mark of his dexterity as a storyteller and his commitment to a sense of humanism that is all too often lacking in the world of big action filmmaking.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Marvel Studios
Overall Rating: (3)
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