Shuri is a lot like most younger siblings: Her most defining feature is her spunk — she’s unwilling (or perhaps unable) to engage in conversation with her older brother without throwing in a joke at his expense — but give her a bit of time and the wisdom and compassion come through. “Just because something works,” she tells him after he returns from a battle he fumbled, “does not mean it cannot be improved.” She’s referring specifically to EMP beads, but her statement resonates with every major theme of the film.
Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” is the 18th feature-length film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In a series light on ideas and heavy on high-concept plots, it’s a refreshing film that not only improves upon the working formula set forth by Marvel blockbusters, but clutches its own identity with its fist raised high. While it’s anchored by the conventions of the modern blockbuster in the most inoffensive of means, Coogler’s complex screenplay and layered performances allow it to overcome its hurdles.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the Black Panther, the king of the fictional country of Wakanda in central Africa. Following the death of his father T’Chaka, the former Black Panther, during the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa returns to Wakanda to officially be crowned king. Unlike the web of relationships and conflict that complicate other entries in the MCU, “Black Panther” stands on its own as a film with no prerequisites (I haven’t seen a single “Captain America” film but know enough to enjoy this movie). Recaps are brief and unobtrusive, and you won’t catch a character forcing references to inform the uninformed audience.
The kingdom of Wakanda is a sprawling, technologically advanced hub powered by the powerful metal vibranium. Vibranium is this film’s MacGuffin, and the reason why Wakandans live so isolated from the rest of the world. It’s also the reason why Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan in a show-stealing role) wants to dethrone T’Challa and lead Wakanda as an aid to black revolutionaries around the world to fight their oppressors. Their ideological conflict is one that puts into question the responsibilities of people in power and the baggage that it comes with, while also being distinctly centered around black identity.
“Black Panther” comes packaged with more Marvel blockbuster boons than the average film of its ilk. It boasts a likeable protagonist, replete with his own worldview that his character arc explores with depth; the comedy, when it’s present, is more hit than miss; the supporting characters all contribute valuable insight to our understanding of the film’s themes; and the action, spread-out and well-paced, is entertaining and dynamic in setting (even when it looks awful).
Like his father and, likely every Black Panther before him, T’Challa assumes the mantle with a hefty weight on his shoulders. Power, as it turns out, is not an easy thing to wield — especially when this power can shape the lives of billions of oppressed people. Early on in the film, T’Challa uncovers truths that his father omitted from the illustrious timeline of Wakandan rulership. He’s shocked, but mostly angry. In the ancestral plane where the consciousness of those who consume the heart-shaped herb are transported to before gaining superhuman powers, T’Challa initially tells his father he’s reluctant to become king without his father. By the end of the film, their relationship is strained and unresolved, his conflict now centered around the legacy of the Black Panther. “It’s hard,” as T’Chaka says, “for a good man to be a king.”
Leadership and the accompanying power, as it turns out, is difficult — Coogler understands this. The tension between Wakandan isolationism and the diasporic rage against oppression that Killmonger identifies with sears the screen, smiting neither perspective but assimilating the views into a tangible compromise by the end. “Black Panther” challenges us to consider the antagonist less as a whatever-means-necessary evildoer but a sympathetic, complex antihero with depth beyond his on-screen presence. While his ethos is stained with the blood of the innocent (not unlike the legacy of colonialism he seeks to destroy), Killmonger makes a compelling case for the best Marvel antagonist to date.
Despite its heady gamut of themes that make it considerably darker than others in the series, “Black Panther” still espouses the light-heartedness of the MCU without jeopardizing that weight. Letitia Wright (“Black Mirror,” “Urban Hymn”) is a breakout performer as Wakandan wizkid Shuri who designs all the Black Panther gear. She delivers what is unquestionably the worst joke in the film (if “what are those” is a dead meme in 2018, this joke will serve only to exponentially date the film in years to come) but manages to recover from it with her puerile charm. It’s a funny movie that never really tries too hard, and most of its humor comes from the female characters. Like Shuri, the female characters of “Black Panther” serve distinct roles that are anything but tokenized. They’re active agents with their own worldviews that directly affect the plot of the film in incredible ways.
To declare “Black Panther” as a film with a lot of hype is to understate how defining it is for a generation of black audiences. Most of the hype is warranted — it’s smart, entertaining and proudly black. But it’s not without its problems, the same problems that nine times out of ten will affect even the smartest of blockbusters. Most of it, however, is trivial action-related gripes that will only sway the pettiest of critics to dismiss its strengths. A lot of blood is shed, but you’d be hard pressed to find an ounce of it outside of a few scenes — even when the city of Busan is devastated by superhero mayhem or a throat is slit with vibranium weaponry. While the Black Panther’s acrobatics and feline reflexes have the potential for great fight choreography, the CGI-rendered, shaky-cam combat can be painfully difficult to follow at times, especially in low-lit areas. Other times, it’s plain unconvincing.
Verdict: “Black Panther” is smarter than the average blockbuster without foregoing the comedy and action audiences adore. While it has some of the same problems many superhero movies have, director Ryan Coogler renders them obsolete with his fantastic script that tackles incredibly relevant and challenging themes.