By Jason Abdow
Ten years in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still finding ways to impress and build upon their formula which has worked for them 17 times before this. Now after dozens of heroes have gotten introduced, it is finally time for Black Panther to get his first standalone movie since being introduced in the comics in 1966.
As someone who has been hit-or-miss with the MCU films, I have to admit the last few movies in the franchise have impressed, especially the trilogy of films released last year with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Considering this film has gotten some of the best reviews of any superhero movies ever, my expectations were higher than usual for “Black Panther.”What helps “Black Panther” stand out right from the start is how it generally feels removed from the other films in the MCU.
The story starts shortly after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) prepares to take the throne as King of Wakanda, an advanced African nation that hides as a Third World country. His reign as King does not last long, however, as the throne is soon challenged. Obviously there is a lot more going on in this film, but that is really all you need to know going in. The real question you might be asking is, does “Black Panther” live up to all this hype?
It does and it doesn’t. Sure it is easily one of the best films in the MCU, but whether or not it will be seen as a classic superhero film among “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” is still yet to be determined. What helps this movie stand out among all the other Marvel films is Ryan Coogler, who directed and co-wrote the script. This is just Coogler’s third feature film and he is already proving that he is one of the most talented young voices behind the camera. Coogler makes “Black Panther” his own and chooses to tell this story in a unique way. We have all seen the origin story played out so many times it can be exhausting, so Coogler decides to avoid the clichés and get into what people came to see in addition to some surprises for a film like this.
As for those surprises, I was shocked by how political this movie got. I don’t mean political in the way where it makes explicit commentary on today’s politics, even if there is plenty of subtext to be analyzed, but instead we get to examine the politics of Wakanda. I found this fascinating as we, as well as T’Challa, begin to realize that Wakanda is not a perfect country and the previous kings made several mistakes along the way. It is a nuanced approach to a subject I did not expect a blockbuster to decide to get into in the way it did. And within this well-crafted world, are the characters who come together to create one of the best ensembles in a Marvel movie.
Chadwick Boseman gives a subtler performance than many might be used to from a Marvel hero. Despite being a king, he is not arrogant or cocky but instead more relaxed and collected. The rest of the ensemble surrounding him was great with the biggest standouts being Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s genius sister who has plenty of chances to show her comedic ability, as well as Winston Duke, the leader of a rival tribe who steals each scene he was in. It was also nice to see Andy Serkis chew up the scenery without digital effects covering him up. And yes, I have to talk about Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger. I know this might sound a bit extreme but I think that Killmonger is the best villain of any Marvel movie.
Not only does Michael B. Jordan play him in a menacing, charismatic way that makes him strangely likeable the character is disturbingly relatable. It is shown right from the start that Killmonger is an evil guy, he has no problem with murdering and betraying people, not really a shock for a villain like this. But then the layers to him begin to show. He is an American who has claim to the throne of Wakanda, making him an outsider with unique critiques of how the country is run. And what makes him scarier is that his main problems with the country are generally justified and make sense. Again, there is probably some subtext to dig up about someone wanting to take political control to make seemingly sensible change in negative way but we don’t need to get into that. The only complaint I could have with how his character was handled would be they spent a long portion of this film with him absent which I found disappointing.
Technically speaking, there are also many different parts of this movie that work great. Rachel Morrison, who recently became the first female cinematographer ever nominated for an Oscar, does a great job giving this film a sleek aesthetic in each of its various locations. Legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter creates beautiful costumes, many of which draw heavy influences from African art, helping each character stand out even more. Frequent producer for Childish Gambino, Ludwig Göransson does excellent work with the score, especially with the percussion which pulsates through this film. The film is not without its flaws, as much as I would love for this to be perfect. For one, the visual effects needed some touch ups. As stunning as certain moments looked, others were alarmingly bad for a 2018 film.
I don’t know why this was an issue here when every other Marvel film has looked great but the problem cannot be ignored. And as much as I have enjoyed listening to “Black Panther The Album” the past couple weeks, a couple of the songs were included in an awkward way that took me out of the scenes they were placed in. I also found that while the action did not need to be the centerpiece of a film as story driven as this, I was disappointed in the action presented. Sure, the car chase in South Korea was cool but the final action scene was sloppily handled and did not look amazing. The remaining action was few and far between, which is fine but I was just expecting a little more of it when the fighting technology they did show was so interesting.
Overall, you do want to see “Black Panther.” It is not perfect, but it is a great start to a character that will be important to so many people for years to come. I am so glad a movie like this not just gets to exist within the MCU but is getting the love, and money, it truly deserves. Ryan Coogler has continued to build on his flawless filmography and I cannot wait to see where he goes from here. This franchise has so much potential and I look forward to seeing where this will all go in the inevitable “Black Panther 2” which I am already excited about.