So much has been written about Black Panther that it’s become a movie that elicits a reaction before anyone steps into a movie theater, or chooses not to. Some don’t like that it appears to be socially conscious, while others laud the film for its messaging. Some don’t appreciate the comparisons to all-time classics in terms of its scope or power, while others are busy hammering out 3000-word think pieces about how important the movie is to certain segments of the population, and to the entertainment industry as a whole.
But, here’s the question you really want an answer to, unless you walk in with an unnecessary agenda. Is the movie any good?
We go to see films on the big screen, particularly the superhero genre, for entertainment, for special effects, for big stars and even bigger worlds. Ordinarily, we don’t go to see the “popcorn” blockbuster to face a political lecture or to be told all white people are evil racists. And that’s what many believe is the case with Black Panther. I use the word “believe” because after actually watching the film, I didn’t feel like the enemy in that theater. In fact, I felt a sense of unity to the proceedings.
If you want to watch Black Panther and pull every possible lesson from it, you have the opportunity to do so, because those ideas are there to be found. The movie presents its setting of Wakanda as a hidden gem; an African area that for all intents and purposes appears to be a poverty-stricken third world nation, but which is in actuality the most advanced technological country on the planet. Those secrets are guarded by the inhabitants and residents, who fear what other nations would do if they found out about the riches within their homeland, most importantly the large stockpile of the rare vibranium metal that makes them able to heal the terminally ill, patch up the most vicious of wounds, and run the most effective high speed rail system imaginable. The vibranium found its way to Wakanda due to a crashed meteorite, which is where the superhero tie-in finds its basis.
Still, the country operates on a tribal basis, leaning heavily on its traditions. When it’s time for a new Black Panther to come to power, a new king in Wakanda, each tribe has the opening to challenge for the throne. The dances, the music, the roles within the kingdom, everything fits the past, except for the science. Along with that tradition is a strong sense of family, which brings us to our lead character, T’Challa.
Without giving away the plot, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne, returning to Wakanda following the death of his father. The movie begins with a flashback to 1992, where we see a scene that laters helps to explain much of the motivation of the film’s villain, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). And with that as the backdrop, you have Black Panther as a movie. It’s truly that simple. Sometimes, what’s easy and straightforward is also proper. Director Ryan Coogler is still new to the game. His first two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, were both well-crafted, but neither were heavy on tricks. The former told the true story of Oscar Grant, while the latter brought the Rocky franchise back to prominence, and Coogler understood the requirements of his subject matter and executed at an extremely high level in both cases.
Black Panther is not a convoluted, overly detail-oriented Marvel movie, of which there have been many. Perhaps the movie’s biggest accomplishment is in making Wakanda a fully realized world that is independent of anything else within the expected comic book universe. While we know T’Challa will indeed be a key component of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War movie and Black Panther has relationships with characters we know quite well, this film doesn’t explore either. Rather than rely on the Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth appearance, Black Panther chooses to spend its time introducing us not just to Black Panther and Killmonger, but also to Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Also there’s Winston Duke, who at first doesn’t appear to be overly important, but ends up huge in the end and delivers an excellent, varied performance as the hulking leader, M’Baku.
Coogler’s script, which he wrote alongside Joe Robert Cole, does such a good job with the secondary characters that I would watch a movie based on them almost as quickly as I’d watch one based on T’Challa. In particular, Shuri is an absolute delight, creating more enjoyment than any variation of “Q” we’ve seen in a James Bond story in quite some time. But with all three, there’s believable motivation and loyalty behind every action and every emotion. The sense of family, the overwhelming love and respect between all these people, is something we often don’t get in a superhero film, and that’s what separates Black Panther from many of its brothers and sisters in the end.
If it weren’t for the tech and the visuals and the suits, this would hardly be distinguishable as a comic book movie. As much as I love the genre, Black Panther supplants it in a way we’ve really only seen from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and portions of 2017’s surprisingly dark, Logan, which was the most adult in theme we’ve seen Marvel attempt outside of the vulgar, sophomorically over the top Deadpool. This is its own world, and there are moments when its easy to forget who the character is in the larger Marvel universe.
Wakanda is enough.
In fact, it’s more than enough.
Because we spend so much time in Wakanda and with these characters as they attempt to capture the supremely entertaining and rebellious Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and work with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), we get to know EVERYBODY so much better. The screen isn’t taken up with people we already know that would only have served to get in the way of this story. Not only do we not have the other heroes clogging the plot, we also don’t have tacked-on children to create humor or added sympathy. No, here Ryan Coogler wants us to understand his story completely and he wants us to walk out feeling something for what we just viewed.
And he largely succeeds. While it’s possible some will find portions of the first half of the movie a bit slow, particularly the trips to the ancestral plane, the critiques are hard to find. Yes, there are some politics within Black Panther. There’s a fight over the isolationist tendencies of Wakanda to keep its power close to the vest and not spread that information to the rest of the world, thereby leaving other nations to die. The whites in the movie are usually referred to as “colonizers,” there are references to slavery and racism, but again, Freeman isn’t a villain, nor is he treated as such. He’s a hero before the movie ends, and it leads me to see Coogler’s story as one of hope and unity rather than division and rage.
One of the best points about Black Panther is that those that want more than just the story itself can find it, but those that aren’t interested in that are not going to feel alienated or ostracized. Never is that more true than in the Erik Stevens character, played to absolute perfection by Michael B. Jordan, who also played the lead role in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Justice League‘s biggest failing was in its horrific antagonist, and many other superhero films have been brought to earth because of subpar villains.
Never, in the history of Marvel, has there been a better baddie than in this movie, which is a tribute not just to Jordan’s performance, but also to the writing. Not Doc Ock, not anybody, with really only Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier alongside Killmonger as someone you’re conflicted by, while still pulling for the hero to win in the end. In the superhero classification, if your name isn’t Heath Ledger, it’s arguable Jordan was better than you were. And I would be remiss not to mention how good Boseman is, because he’s superb, although I found Jordan’s performance the film’s real standout and Letitia Wright’s Shuri as the breakout role.
Black Panther‘s story portrays an enemy that you not only understand, but one for whom you can almost root, because his past and his history explain what he’s become. And, as with everything in this movie, Coogler is able to achieve his goals without 20 minute expositions. He makes such good use of every second of his movie, and he consistently places his entire cast in the best spots for success.
As for the bells and whistles, they’re everywhere, and they’re beautiful. The fight scenes are raw, stripped down, and don’t feel overdone. There’s a palpable grit behind each action sequence. The one true chase scene in the movie is exquisite as both a visual experience as well as a place for some underlying humor and lightheartedness surrounding the badassery. The soundtrack, featuring arrangements and collaborations from Kendrick Lamar, is fantastic. The 134 minute length is just right, where you feel like your money was well spent, but you don’t feel robbed or exhausted. When it’s over, you’re ready for it to be over, but not a second before.
Those that continue to hate on Black Panther because of the hype and the social justice headlines and the critical love for the movie are going to be sorely disappointed when they actually sit down and watch it and realize how good it is. Yes, that stuff is there. But watch it anyway. You’ll be glad you did.
Is it the best Marvel film of all time? No. That still belongs to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Is it number two? No. That still belongs to the first Guardians of the Galaxy. From there, it becomes much tougher for me. It depends on my mood. The quality of the films has risen over the years, but without hesitation, I can tell you Black Panther is somewhere in the 3-5 range, and as a movie, it’s the closest non-superhero superhero film the company has ever done.
I may have slightly overrated Thor: Ragnarok as an overall movie in my Marvel rankings last fall, but I had so much fun watching it that it’s still in my higher end mix. This is a better film, though the subject matter is more foundationally sound, grounded, and serious.
When Black Panther takes its bow, you’ll hear applause in the theater. While it’s not the greatest movie ever made, nor the most socially conscious, it’s more than just solid. It’s an outstanding film that brings us a world we have never visited but that we’d love to go back to. Watching it, I immediately recognized that T’Challa and the stars in Wakanda are likely to become major contributors in other films. It’s hard to imagine Infinity War doesn’t feature Black Panther prominently, and in the wake of the critical (and upcoming audience) acclaim, Marvel Studios will make T’Challa a tent pole of the future. With Iron Man and Captain America’s leads both nearing the end of their respective runs, it’s the perfect time to expand the roster and bring in a new type of hero.
Black Panther fits the bill. He looks cool. He is cool. He’s flawed, but is steadfast, honorable, and just. His debut film is the best of its kind certainly since Deadpool or Guardians, but I would go as far as to say it might be the best solo superhero start since Iron Man‘s arrival in 2008. This is a triumph as a comic book film, precisely because it doesn’t do many of the things that mark those movies and make them immediately recognizable and easy to classify. Nothing wrong with what’s been done before, but the differences here are all benefits to Black Panther. It’s deeper, with a rich and vibrant cast of both characters and actors comfortable in the glory of Wakanda. And believe me, everybody wanted to do this thing. In addition to the leads, you’ll see Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and one of the real “it” guys in television acting today, the incredibly gifted Sterling K. Brown. Imagine who will want to be on board for the sequel.
Oh, and one more point on the acting, which I realize I’ve spoken quite a bit about already. Andy Serkis? Amazing. Klaue is a phenomenal secondary antagonist, and Serkis is PERFECT in this movie.
Go in expecting and looking for common ground and places of unity and you’ll find them. Honestly, that’s a good rule for us all to follow every day. If you decide you want to hate it and want to fire out a tweet about it being “woke,” you’ll find a reason. I advise against it. You’re robbing yourself of a strong, entertaining, exceptionally well done movie. Walk in to enjoy yourself and to be open minded to what Coogler has for you, including the messages, and you’ll be rewarded.
Black Panther is an “A” from start to finish. It’s an impossibly easy recommendation. Don’t hesitate. Get yourself to the theater this weekend and watch this thing. You’ll love it. Oh, and spoiler alert…
Stay through the credits.
I’m @JMartOutkick. Fun fact: I am made up entirely of vibranium.