Marvel Studios movies tend to suffer from diminishing returns. It’s something I’ve noticed over the years watching them both as a fan and a critic. It’s easy to fall under the spell of a new Marvel movie; Disney’s monolithic marketing movie-making machine is designed to entertain at all costs, and it’s very easy to come out of the newest Marvel movie taken by the humor pop culture references and rousing action. But when I revisit those movies later on, freed of the allure of an opening weekend screening of the latest blockbuster, that the cracks are easier to see. Guardians of the Galaxy is funny and strange, but it’s also heavily bogged down by dry exposition and an addiction to proper names. Captain America: Civil War is a bombastic collision of all your favorite characters, but the conflict seems forced and manufactured under the harsh light of day. This is a running theme with these movies, all surface but not enough substance to hold up to scrutiny. With each new movie in the saga, I hope that this one will offer the sort of experience I’m looking for, a perfect marriage of that spectacle with the foundation to make it pay off in the long term. Their latest effort to bridge the gap is the first standalone film for one of their newest heroes, Black Panther.
We were first introduced to the Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War under the most tragic of circumstances. Shaken by the death of his father at the hands of Baron Zemo, T’Challa has returned to his native land of Wakanda to officially take up the mantle of king. The isolationist country in Africa is a hidden technological utopia built upon a mountain of Vibranium, one of the strongest metals in the world that also has special properties that have led to the culture to advance far beyond its humble neighbors. But the Wakandans are aware of the destructive capabilities of Vibranium if it falls into the wrong hands. The wrong hands in this case are those of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, who previously cameoed in Avengers: Age of Ultron), an arms dealer looking to plunder Wakanda of its resources to make a quick buck. Klaue’s right hand man is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former special forces soldier who seems to know quite a bit about Wakanda for being born in Los Angeles, putting him on a collision course with T’Challa where a power struggle is inevitable.
Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) does an excellent job making Black Panther feel unlike the Marvel Universe films that came before it. Sure, other MCU films have taken advantage of changes in setting to spice up the visual side of things (to a point), but at the end of the day, there’s still white people at the forefront of these movies and white culture is the dominant motif everywhere you look. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tony Stark’s oceanside mansion, the futuristic castles of Asgard or the severed head of a Celestial god, the culture behind it all feels of a piece. That’s not the case with Black Panther, a film that, despite its similarities in plot structure and villain design, feels entirely unlike anything that’s come before it in the Marvel Universe. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (fresh off her Oscar nomination for shooting Mudbound) and production designer Hannah Beachler does good work making Wakanda look like the mix of African tribalism and futuristic technology logical without falling back tired tropes.
Coogler has assembled a cracking cast to surround Boseman and Jordan, bringing along Lupita N’yongo as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a Wakandan spy, Forest Whitaker as a Wakandan elder, Danai Gurira as the leader of Wakanda’s royal guard, Daniel Kaluuya as a friend and sometimes rival, and Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother. Particularly impressive are Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s little sister and Q-esque gadget supplier and Winston Duke as a hulking warrior leader. They all do wonders in creating brand new characters and making you invested in their lives and relationships in such a short period of time, but this is still Boseman and Jordan’s show. Boseman is a classic leading man in every way, filling T’Challa with a reserve of quiet dignity even in the most dire of circumstances. Jordan expressly plays the opposite end of Boseman’s spectrum, a brash and cocky man who sees the injustice in the world and doesn’t care what moral prices he might have to pay to strike back at the establishment power structure. It’s the sort of dynamic other Marvel films have attempted to reach but fallen short, but it’s exactly where Black Panther succeeds the most.
It’s heartening to know that, when they really put their mind to it, creators over at Marvel Studios are actually able to make a compelling villain. We all know Marvel has a villain problem, and while the main belligerent of Black Panther falls into the same mold so many other Marvel villains do as a mirror image of the hero. And yes, Killmonger eventually dons his own Black Panther garb with a different color scheme (just like in Iron Man and Ant-Man and Doctor Strange and Thor and so on and so on and so), but the man behind the mask is dynamic in a way his brethren in Marvel evil so often aren’t. It helps immensely that Michael B. Jordan is among the most charismatic actors working today and Killmonger has a real and understated motivation that separates him from the litany of disappointments that came before him. Honestly, the worst part of his character is the name; having a bunch of otherwise serious characters call this guy Killmonger like he’s a professional wrestler from the 1980s threatens to undercut both the menace and the nobility that makes him such an interesting character. Yes, he’s a character from the comics, but that name more than anything else breaks the spell Coogler so carefully succeeds in constructing.
If it weren't for the standard issue Marvel jokiness not always landing (a late crack about Coachella is particularly groan-inducing) and the third act CGI beat-em-up that's been tired since Iron Man 2, Black Panther could have been the first MCU film to break the glass ceiling. Its exposition isn't awkward the way Guardians of the Galaxy is. It’s not beholden to the suffocating world-building of the franchise the way The Avengers or Captain America: Civil War are. And it feels more vital and alive than the Ant-Mans and Doctor Stranges of the world. Time will tell if Black Panther has the staying power that these films didn’t. Marvel movies are always enjoyable to watch in the theater. It’s impossible for Marvel Studios to not make that happen. But transcending that baseline desire to entertain has never been high on their to-do list. But Black Panther flirts with that. It is perhaps the most socially conscious Marvel film to date, exploring the struggle between isolationism as a tool for safety and the cost of failing to use your resources to help others in need. We’ve seen a string of directors trade their success in smaller independent features for big budget big name studio roles, and after both Creed and Black Panther, it’s tough to deny that no one has been as successful in making the leap as Ryan Coogler. He’s a director capable of putting his own stamp on these films even with the pressures and expectations of big studios and big franchises are scratching at his door. And I can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.