The seemingly never ending Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) started way back 10 years ago with Iron Man has been a seemingly impossible to replicate cultural earthquake that has revolutionized movie making. While not all of the movies have been 5 star achievements none of them have been an outright disaster and I don’t think a one of the dozen qualifies as a bad movie. I know that Iron Man 2 and 3 get some hate along with Thor and Thor: The Dark Ages but I don’t join in that. Even the worst of the Marvel movies are still pretty damn good and only start to show their cracks when compared to others in their franchise. Think of this as the Pixar Effect. Cars is a fine movie against the general animation field but it can’t hold a candle to Toy Story 3 or Finding Nemo.
So among the pantheon of Marvel Studios movies up to this point where does Black Panther fall? Near the top. I put it up there with Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Iron Man 3 which are my favorite of the series. Whether you agree with ranking Black Panther with those movies or not is irrelevant so don’t get hung up on it. The point is it’s in my personal top grouping of the series. Everyone has their favorites and those lists don’t always intersect. For example, my wife has declared Black Panther as her favorite over all of the MCU movies. There are several things Black Panther gets very right and none it gets wrong. The plot is a bit predictable at times but the action scenes are great, world building is phenomenal, and the cast overcomes any weaknesses in the script.
Let’s talk about that cast. At this stage in the MCU the one thing that all of the movies have in common is brilliant casting. Damn near every A list talent in Hollywood has been attached to something related to Marvel Studios and the trend continues here. What we forget is all that A list talent was mostly B and C list talent before the Marvel suits came knocking. The genius of the Marvel casting is on full display with Black Panther. It mixes established actors like Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Angela Basset with less well known actors like Chadwick Boseman, Danae Gurira, and Letitia Wright. All have been doing strong work but are now on the verge of super stardom just through their association with Marvel. That golden touch continues with Black Panther. The cast keeps you invested and caring even when the script becomes a bit routine.
Taking place after the UN bombing in Captain America: Civil War that killed his father, T’Challa (Boseman) returns home to the hidden African nation of Wakanda to be crowned King of the 5 tribes of Wakanda. Soon he learns of a scheme by Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to sell some stolen vibranium in South Korea. With the assistance of General Okoye (Gurira), the spy Nakia (Nyong’o), and his tech genius sister Shuri (Wright), the group heads to South Korea to capture the criminal. From there things get complicated when a mysterious mercenary, Erik Killmonger (Jordan), appears and knows a lot more about Wakanda and T’Challa than our heroes realize.
The story is good and takes a lot of chances while offering similar origin story beats we’ve seen before. Early on the South Korea sequence plays out like a Bond movie going from casino based espionage to full on brawl before culminating in a dizzying car chase through the night time streets of the city. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) keeps the complex action in this sequence coherent and thrilling though out.
After that the rest of the movie takes place in Wakanda serving as the backdrop for a more traditional struggle-to-save-the-kingdom story. The script is credited to Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole but there are times you can feel the Marvel mandates steering the ship. The last half of the movie more or less unfolded as I thought it would and I wish they had taken some chances with the ending. That said, it’s difficult to fault the filmmakers for this perceived shortcoming because this is still a Marvel Studios film and there is a certain template that must be met. Within that template Coogler found a lot of areas to shore up the script. Even if the story feels a bit familiar at times the art direction and cast always elevates the material so you really don’t mind. Some timely social commentary also gives the drama more weight than most Marvel movies to this point have delivered.
One of the things I loved about Black Panther is how much of it takes place in the nation of Wakanda. The world building and art direction for the movie is off the charts making the mythical nation come to life on screen in eye popping detail. Our first view of the city is an aerial scene that shows a thriving and futuristic metropolis influenced by African history and architecture styles. It’s a gorgeous, mind-blowing money shot that brings the city to life. The costumes and character design continue that motif with modern looks that meld with the traditional for the different characters. In Shuri’s Q-like technology lair the visuals are sleek and cutting edge while still retaining the warmth of African colors and art design. Exterior, interior, and costumes all come together with tremendous success and make Wakanda a truly unique setting.
I cannot heap enough praise on the Black Panther cast. T’Challa spends a lot of the movie without the full Black Panther suit on, a story choice that I applaud. Superhero movies are always more interesting when you see the hero without their full costume and powers. In this way Black Panther is similar to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Like Homecoming, using the suit powers sparingly makes the appearance of the Black Panther special every time we see it. By limiting the suit we are focused on the actor playing the superhero and Chadwick Boseman is fantastic as T’Challa. He has the bearing of royalty and a deep seated sense of honor that informs his every action. His chemistry with his cast mates is off the charts, especially with his would-be queen, played by Lupita Nyong’o. “Would be” because she has no interest in being queen as it would interfere with her job as a bad-ass spy for Wakanda.
Speaking of bad-ass, Danae Gurira is a force to be reckoned with as the honor bound General Okoye. The bald beauty may lay out more people in the movie than Black Panther himself. Angela Bassett brings the regal intensity she is known for to a role she could do in her sleep and still makes it one of the most memorable every time she trains her steely gaze on an adversary. As good as everyone is, special notice has to be given to Leticia Wright and Michael B. Jordan. Shuri is a terrific character and Wright brings her fully to life. She’s a tech nerd, brilliant, loves her family, and a fierce fighter as well*. There are no shrinking violets or damsels in distress in this movie and its wonderfully refreshing to see that in a tent pole film like Black Panther. Last but not least is Michael B. Jordan and oh man is he good here. He has played intense before in Creed but his Erik Killmonger is on a whole other level. Jordan stalks the sets with barely contained rage and looks ready to ignite at any moment lending his scenes with Chadwick Boseman and the rest of the cast a real sense of danger. This is another one of those performances that really should be recognized come awards time but likely won’t because of the stigma against comic book based movies even as the genre is saving Hollywood.
Ryan Coogler and company have delivered another Marvel Studios classic. The familiar story beats hold it back from being a grand slam but the cast, art direction, and social commentary put Black Panther on the upper tier of Marvel Studios films. I hope the movie’s success allows the expected Black Panther 2 to really explode expectations and add a unique story to the top tier elements already here.
MCU Chronology – For maximum enjoyment see Black Panther after Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. The movie does a good job filling in backstory but Civil War especially is recommended since it’s the first appearance of Black Panther in the series. Also it’s one of the better entries.
*My wife pointed out that technically Shuri is a Disney princess. She would join Tiana from 2008’s gorgeous and highly underrated The Princess & the Frog as the second black princess in the pantheon. I’m shaking my head in frustration at that but even small steps from the monolithic Disney corporation can shake the cultural ground eventually leading to change.