Film Review: Black Panther

'Black Panther' succeeds where other superhero movies fail.
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The Marvel Cinematic Universe tacks another movie onto its hot streak with Black Panther—a triumph for the MCU and for superhero filmmaking as a whole. Hell, go ahead and call it a triumph in general. Moviegoers most likely will; with its combination of action, comedy, a much-loved cast and a strain of intelligence often missing from big-budget blockbusters, this first solo outing from one of Marvel’s top-tier superheroes is poised to bring in a boatload of money.

Chadwick Boseman, first introduced in Captain America: Civil War, returns as Prince T’Challa, who following the death of his father (John Kani) assumes two roles: those of the king and superpowered protector—known as the Black Panther—of the African nation of Wakanda, which keeps its riches hidden from the outside world under the guise of being a Third World country. Like recent Marvel successes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther feels somewhat insular; though the action does occasionally venture outside of Wakanda, writer-director Ryan Coogler for the most part keeps things centered on Wakandan world-building and the new characters he’s tasked with introducing: stern Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa’s lead bodyguard; tech-savvy Shuri (Letitia Wright, a standout), who needles T’Challa as only a little sister can; and local leaders W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and M’Baku (Winston Duke) among them. A few references aside, Coogler keeps intrusions from the rest of the MCU at a minimum. The result is a movie that feels like a movie, as opposed to—as the lesser entries in the MCU sometimes are—a mere puzzle piece in ongoing #franchise #brand #synergy.

Not to harsh on the MCU too much—the odd misstep aside, franchise ringmaster Kevin Feige has cracked the code for reliably turning out solid, entertaining blockbusters—but Black Panther shows up its predecessors by effortlessly clearing hurdles that others have stumbled over. To start with: Despite a run-time of 132 minutes, Black Panther doesn’t leave you with a nagging sense of this could’ve been 20 minutes shorter. Or: The love interest—spy Nakia, played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o—actually feels like a fully fleshed-out character; to even refer to her as the “love interst” feels specious.

Or, take this example: The MCU has made a habit of enlisting talented actors to do nothing much of anything in supporting roles. (Remember Michael Stuhlbarg and Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange? Bobby Cannavale in Ant-Man? Julie Delpy in Avengers: Age of Ultron?) The cast list Coogler’s working with is large, but everyone gets their moment. The film feels more like an ensemble piece than Black Panther, And Then a Whole Bunch of Other People. That’s because Coogler’s script, though certainly boasting as much action as you’d expect a superhero movie to (a car chase through the streets of Busan stands up quite well), focuses on relationships more than spectacle. By the time the requisite climactic battle scene hits, you’ve become invested enough in the characters that it works, even if the action falls a bit on the generic side.

Black Panther succeeds at being emotionally resonant in a way a lot of Marvel movies—a lot of blockbusters, period—don’t. With Creed and Fruitvale Station, Coogler has proven adept at tugging at moviegoers’ heartstrings, and he doesn’t let up just because he’s in a bigger playground. Not to do go deep into spoilery territory, but Michael B. Jordan’s villain—Erik Killmonger, wannabe usuper to T’Challa’s throne—is the most complex, most intelligently written, most relatable, just plain best villain the MCU has ever had. (Yes, that includes Loki.) Shot through his storyline, and those of the other characters, are issues of race, responsibility and political activism. There’s nothing wrong with a superhero movie being just entertaining, but Black Panther is entertaining and smart in a way that earmarks it as the product of Coogler’s distinct vision.

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