With the Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrating its ten-year anniversary in 2018, True Believers have the perfect opportunity to reflect and revisit the House of Ideas’ filmography from 2008’s ‘Iron Man’ to 2017’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. And while many will look back on those movies fondly, it’s important to note that Marvel Studios has received its fair share of criticism amidst the sea of praise that usually accompanies their feature films. Two of the most common knocks against many of the films is that A) the plots are very similar and B) the villains are very bland. While they’re not necessarily wrong in some cases, the architects of the MCU have been deviating from this formula a great deal lately. All you have to do is look to the work of James Gunn, Taika Waititi, Jon Watts, and the Russo Brothers as the most recent examples to see that we’re not simply getting your cookie cutter superhero movies anymore. But if you’re not completely sold yet, then look no further than ‘Black Panther’ to change your mind and change the game.
Following King T’Chaka’s death at the hands of Helmut Zemo in ‘Captain America: Civil War’, T’Challa returns to his home in the secretive and secluded African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. However, the former prince is put to the test when a powerful new enemy named Erik Killmonger threatens the throne, the country, and the entire world when he seeks to harness the power of the Black Panther and the unparalleled Wakandan resources for his own nefarious plans.
Looking back to the most common critiques of Marvel movies, one could argue that ‘Black Panther’ clearly takes some cues from predecessors such as ‘Civil War’ and ‘Ragnarok’ when it comes to certain plot points. But despite some similarities, writer/director Ryan Coogler’s execution is what really makes the Phase Three tale stand out. The relatively new filmmaker shows that his skills far exceed his level of experience. From a writing standpoint, he manages to give the two and a half hour film plenty of balance that kept it from dragging throughout the story. I can’t even really recall a section involving exposition or politics that may have hinted at overstaying its welcome because it all flowed so well together.
But as interesting as the writing was, Coogler really shined with his camera work. Using similar tactics from his experience on ‘Creed’, the director utilized tight handheld shots to get up close and personal with the action sequences. Even in instances where a fight scene engulfed a much larger setting, the camera takes us seamlessly through the commotion in dynamic ways that elevated the awesome fight choreography, special effects, and even the surrounding environment.
Of course, Coogler wouldn’t have as much cool stuff to shoot without an incredible cast to bring the story to life. From top to bottom, the stars of ‘Black Panther’ were absolutely top notch. Chadwick Boseman continues to play T’Challa perfectly. Just as his character begins to fit into his new role as the King of Wakanda, Boseman really seems to embody the titular hero. Plus, his interactions with Letitia Wright’s princess/tech genius Shuri are incredibly endearing and genuine. We should all look forward to her putting Tony Stark in his place in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ while Dr. Bruce Banner chuckles at his Science Bro nearby. While Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, and Forest Whitaker serve as an excellent support system for T’Challa, they each receive an adequate amount of character growth and backstory that makes them each stand out on their own. Then, Danai Gurira of ‘Walking Dead’ fame shines alongside each and every actress that made up the elite Wakandan warrior unit known as the Dora Milaje. Similar to the Amazons from ‘Wonder Woman’, they kicked some major ass every opportunity they got. And though his character could have easily been a throwaway background character, Winston Duke’s M’Baku interestingly had some badass moments and hilarious lines throughout the film (even though he was basically in only three scenes). I wouldn’t be surprised if the leader of Jabari tribe becomes a beloved fan-favorite like Dum Dum Duggan, Korg, Wong, and Michael Pena’s ‘Ant-Man’ character Luis.
But as great as the ensemble was, frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan really takes the cake. Jordan’s Killmonger definitely doesn’t adhere to the MCU’s villain problem because his motivations are far more nuanced than just world domination or becoming a king. His sole purpose isn’t to be there to simply be beaten by our hero. Erik Stevens is a sympathetic character. While he may be the main antagonist of the film, he essentially wants to help people just like T’Challa. They’re two sides of the same coin. Naturally, his methods are more extreme than the Panther, but the audience can totally see where he’s coming from whether they agree with him or not. Killmonger has such great depth that he may stand with Loki, Zemo, Vulture, Kingpin, and Kilgrave as some of the MCU’s greatest villains.
However, despite being one of the best parts of the movie, Killmonger is also connected to the only real criticism that this critic walked away with. Coogler and company worked very hard to design the world of Wakanda and its inhabitants. Each aspect of this corner of the MCU from the clothes to the weapons to the vehicles to the buildings was meticulously designed to reflect a rich culture with a colorful tapestry of tradition and history behind it. But when it came time to debut Erik’s final fight outfit, it’s a carbon copy of T’Challa’s Black Panther suit, except with gold accents. Had Killmonger not been written and acted so well, this suit could have easily propelled him into the copycat villain territory of Iron Monger, Whiplash, Yellowjacket, or the Abomination that is pretty played out at this point. A few more steps could have easily been taken during the character design phase to further differentiate Black Panther and Killmonger and keep them from being identical to one another during the climax of the film. It’s a small blemish on an otherwise phenomenal film, but a blemish nonetheless.
Aside from that extremely minor critique, ‘Black Panther’ certainly lives up to the hype. Engaging, funny, kick-ass, and emotional are just a few adjectives that one could use to describe the film. It’s also a great way to kick off the celebration of Marvel Studios’ 10th anniversary because it’s an excellent amalgamation of some of the best parts of the MCU. But above all else, this movie is definitely an event and not only in the sense of all Marvel movies are an event because everyone wants to see them and talk about them as soon as they can.
‘Black Panther’ is a cultural event. It reinforces the fact that the stories of people of color need to be told, they need to be told by people of color, and they can still be as universally successful and appealing to the general audience as any other story if given the chance. But to the legions of fans that don’t fit the “default” of Hollywood, this movie means exponentially more to them. Slowly but surely, voices are being heard and the entertainment industry is becoming as much of a melting pot as the actual country it’s supposed to entertain. Naturally, there’s still a long way to go, but until we get there, this is one hell of a place to start as it’s a win on many levels. May cries of “Wakanda forever!” fuel the fires of those fighting for representation in the media as hard as T’Challa fights to protect his kingdom and beyond.