Going into a superhero movie, particularly one from Marvel, you expect things to go boom, a signature if not assembly-line-looking color pallet and some energetic humor. They’re perfect summer fare. But over the last few years, they’ve made a conscience and welcomed effort to evolve into something a little smarter.
If phase one was about establishing the individual characters culminating in the first Avengers movie, phase two is where they tackled specific themes to ground each film. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark dealt with PTSD following the events of The Avengers. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they chose to focus on national security and surveillance and how it relates to our freedom.
It continued with Avengers: Age of Ultron where an overreliance on technology could lead to our downfall. Government oversight was a major theme behind Captain America: Civil War and it provided an interesting conversation about superheroes perhaps inciting the very evil they aim to defeat. It was also an acknowledgement of the collateral damage they can sometimes cause.
In the case of Marvel’s latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has made perhaps the most political and subversive Marvel movie to date.
In describing the central theme of Black Panther, Coogler chose to focus on responsibility and identity:
“What do the powerful owe those in need? It separates the good-guys from the villains. What value is strength unless you’re using it to help someone?”
It’s that old adage from Spider-Man; with great power comes great responsibility. But Black Panther, also known as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly appointed king of Wakanda following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, has a responsibility to his people first and foremost.
On the surface (Quite literally), Wakanda is a Third World country struggling to survive. But in reality, it is a technologically advanced African nation that thrives thanks to a rare metal known as vibranium that powers the entire country.
But wouldn’t such a powerful thing be helpful for other struggling countries? T’Challa believes it would. But at what cost? He’s reluctant to share anything from Wakanda with the rest of the world because he knows such a move could threaten their peaceful existence. Wakanda doesn’t sound like a “shit-hole country,” does it?
What makes Black Panther stand out from other Marvel movies is how relevant it feels. There’s obvious parallels between Wakanda and America including border security, immigration and the corruption of power, but to have a predominantly black cast at the center of it is even more ironic considering the political climate we’re in.
And the cast is spectacular. Every single character has depth and purpose thanks to Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole. Lupita Nyong’o is T’Challa’s former lover who now risks her life as a spy for Wakanda. Danai Gurira puts down the samurai sword from The Walking Dead and plays Okoye as a proud general in T’Challa’s army who still has the courage to question him in times of crises.
Danial Kaluuya, fresh off of his Oscar-nominated turn in Get Out, plays W’Kabi, leader of another tribe within Wakanda who feels T’Challa must embrace his new leadership by evolving and sharing their resources with the outside world.
But the standout is Letitia Wright as Shuri, little sister to T’Challa. Not only is she the smartest person in Wakanda and the creator of all of their technology, she’s also Q to Black Panther. She provides him with all of his gadgets while also throwing in the occasional sibling jab to keep him humble.
The heroes aren’t the only three-dimensional characters. Michael B. Jordan plays Erik Killmonger, a troubled soldier out for revenge against Wakanda for reasons I won’t get in to. He could have been just another bad guy reveling in seeing destruction. But Coogler and Cole give him sensible motivation for his actions. By the end, he delivers a poignant monologue that kind of justifies everything he does in the film. He’s by far the best villain in the MCU since Loki. I do wish there was more of him though.
We’ve established that Black Panther is a smart Marvel movie. But is it entertaining? Most definitely. I mentioned Q from James Bond earlier and that’s a great description of this film. Marvel has made a James Bond film. Black Panther looks spectacular thanks to Coogler bringing in his own team of people including cinematographer Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler and composer Ludwig Goransson. The costumes are vibrant and colorful, the music is energetic and distinct and the whole world feels new and fresh.
Despite not having much experience in the action department, Coogler directs the set pieces with confidence. From hand-to-hand fights atop a waterfall to car chases in South Korea and aerial battles above Wakanda, Coogler gives each action sequence its own unique stamp on the film.
I was worried that Boseman would lack a certain level of charisma. But the script doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing for Boseman and the supporting cast room for some levity.
Black Panther is an immensely satisfying movie that perfectly balances real-world issues with Marvel’s signature appeal. It’s a popcorn movie that asks interesting questions about identity, legacy and responsibility.