Rating: Above a B+, but not quite an A-. Leaning more towards the A- though.
Summary: The rise of a king in the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
Black Panther was easily the most anticipated movie of 2018, one of the most heavily promoted Marvel movies in recent memory, and (will be) one of the biggest movies of the year. After smashing records for presale tickets, some incredible Kickstarter do-gooder stories, and a monster marketing campaign, Black Panther came into theaters with a roar. (PUNS! That’s the only one, I promise.)
Appropriately so- Black Panther is one of the best Marvel movies, for very different and distinct reasons which separate it from the rest of the pack. I’d put it right up there with Captain America: Civil War, X-2, and Spider-man 2. (I know those last 2 aren’t “technically” Marvel movies, but hear me out.) I’ll just start with the feelings I’ve had several hours after leaving the theater and mulling it over- I can’t recall ever studying a Marvel movie so closely or looking forward to doing some homework about the production and where they drew their inspirations. I can’t remember if I ever left a Marvel movie looking forward to watching it repeatedly for its acting and dialogue.
I do know I’ve never left a Marvel movie thinking about its themes and presentation as much as I have with this one. Aside from the Captain America series, most of the Marvel series doesn’t really have a purpose other than “bang bang CGI explosions and Tony Stark quips.” I just want them to grow up a bit in themes, presentation, and meaning. I hope Black Panther is the first of many steps in that direction. (I acknowledge these hopes will probably be dashed once I see another uninspired work with nothing to say- ahem, a la Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, that second Thor movie, and hell- I’ll even throw Spider-man: Homecoming into this, etc.) There are broader, more important discussions with personal conflicts at the heart of the work here and it’s very much felt throughout the entire movie in every. Single. Character.
Directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), Black Panther weaves us an intricate story of tradition and culture as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a hidden African country which is technically superior to every other nation in the world (thanks, Vibranium!). He gets wind that Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis sans mo-cap suit), a thief of Wakandan technology and a good deal of Vibranium, is illegally selling a stolen weapon. In pursuit of bringing Klaue to justice, T’Challa finds the real threat to his country. There are a ton of motifs here including not only Black and African identities but also the importance of tradition, the roots of one’s culture, family, responsibility to the greater good versus one’s self, global intervention… the list goes on and on and on.
I can’t think of a mainstream movie that has presented these so frankly prior to Black Panther. The movie doesn’t shy away from being explicit, and even though the bad guy is the bad guy- we’re put in a really interesting position where we can’t disagree with all of his points, just maybe his manner of execution. And for these reasons, T’Challa is constantly changing and debating with himself what his next move will be. It makes Black Panther more than a good guy trying to save the world- there’s more meaning and punch to T’Challa as everything rests on his sense of duty and moral obligations. These are by far the best dynamics we’ve seen from Marvel Studios. This is some Spider-man 2 level s*** right here.
For this alone, I rank Black Panther head and shoulders above its Marvel siblings. It’s not just good entertainment, but a solid, meaningful story complete with a good villain (Michael B. Jordan), really memorable mic drops, and wow moments. If we took out all the explosions and action sequences, we’d still have a Shakespearean plot worth watching. It’s appropriately comedic and simultaneously heartbreaking and tragic led by the duality of two men, who by rights should have had similar upbringings but by chance, led very different lives. It’s Valjean vs. Javert. It’s Hamilton vs. Burr. It’s Mufasa vs. Scar. There are so many fully rounded characters, rich in detail and range. To go along with that, this cast is just absolutely perfect. Boseman just… I don’t know where he gets all this charisma. I’ve decided I’m just going to watch all of his movies to try and find his flaws because he doesn’t seem to have any. Jordan adds a ton of depth to an already well-written seemingly bad character, making one of the best, most memorable villains Marvel has had in a long time. Bonus: Pre-Oscar nominated Daniel Kaluuya brings some more side eye and brimming tears to the party!
And then the women. Merciful Zeus. I thought Wonder Woman was going to be the best I got of women in superhero movies (that’s a sad thought, now that I think about it), but damnit- I’m going to have to give this to Black Panther too. And it’s not just limited to the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s all-female staff of bodyguards. T’Challa is surrounded by strong women and leans on them for support and help. I love that he openly expresses his emotions to them. He never questions them or their actions/motives and even when it comes to his love interest, he’s supportive of what they might be able to do. Generally speaking, Wakanda doesn’t seem to categorize its women in traditional gender roles, ranging from a spy (Lupita Nyong’o) to a brilliant engineer who is technically a princess (a hilarious and perky Letitia Wright) to his right-hand general (Danai Gurira) to the Queen Mother (the never-aging Angela Bassett). The Wakandan women never judge each other. They never oppose each other without reason. And they’re frickin’ sensible! The Wakandan women are given a practical sense of fashion, appropriate for women who have a battle-centric mindset but would still like flair. Nyong’o not only removes her stiletto but whacks someone in the face with the heel and then drives barefoot in the car chase. Gurira wears practical flat [still gold!] shoes with a gown because she knows the real reason she is there is to kick ass. [sobs quietly] I loved it!
Come to think of it, Chadwick, you can move over because Danai Gurira stole my heart in this movie. She can do absolutely no wrong in anything. If I could have Danai Gurira’s voice telling me “We are home” every time I walked through my front door, my day would be instantly better. Walking Dead, you need to pay her more money.
I will say that visually and specifically with its special effects, Black Panther doesn’t look that much better than the other Marvel movies, though it is enriched with the help of the remarkable production which is inspired by various African tribes (not to mention a kickass soundtrack). The CGI is not great. There are several scenes made up of solo character shots, which gives a sense of choppiness- sometimes it doesn’t feel like the actors are really “in it” together or acting off each other. The action is also jumbled and too close to the camera at points; overall, the action sequences could have used the same vibrancy and coloring as the others. While it would be unfair to compare this to Civil War (because, you know, that one was just insanely, impossibly good), it’s a shame that the fluidity of Black Panther from that movie isn’t shown to its fullest extent here. (I’ve also been spoiled watching a lot of really good historical action pieces recently and it’s just my mentality now that if I can’t see the whole spear or sword in the shot, the action is hard to follow.) There is one continuous take action sequence in a casino that would have been fantastic had it not been for the framing. The following car chase is dope though! And the final battle scene is satisfactory, due to the dialogue and meaning even if the rhinos were a little Star Wars: Episode II-ish. I even had a little lump in my throat when it ended.
Like I said before- the story itself is highly entertaining and compelling even without the action, so even though the action and effects are somewhat middle ground, I’ll still rank this above the others. I feel like it’s so rare to get this level of engagement in this kind of movie with the characters and their interactions, as well as the film’s purpose. I really, wholly, fully enjoyed Black Panther from start to finish and I hope it just makes a ton of money and possible outdoes that third Avengers movie coming out later. Black Panther really, really deserves it. My goodness.