The hype is strong for Black Panther. I certainly felt the weight of it as I sat down for the press screening. Not only was this movie supposed to be an all-timer, but it's also super duper important culturally and anyone who doesn't love it probably hates black people and donates to Donald Trump on the regular.
Thankfully the movie is really damn good so I don't have to question my own progressiveness. Phew, that was a close one.
Is it in danger of being overhyped? Yeah, for sure. At the end of the day it's a good superhero movie, but I didn't walk out of it feeling like I did after credits rolled on The Dark Knight or even The Avengers.
To be fair, Black Panther is about something way different than either of those films. Avengers was a big feel good ass-kicking actionfest that was all about dazzling you with the first ever superhero team up of that scale and The Dark Knight was a dark, gritty examination of how good people deal with the injection of chaos into their world. Black Panther isn't going for either of those two feelings, falling somewhere between the two, actually.
There isn't much action in the movie. In fact it plays a little more like a modern era James Bond film than a typical Marvel superhero story for almost all the action in the first half. The fights are one on one as T'Challa proves his worthiness for the throne and there's a mission to a South Korean underground casino that reminded me a ton of Skyfall in how it was shot and the political intrigue on display.
This film is more concerned with character and world-building than it is on dazzling you with an action set piece very 15 minutes. Instead it cranks up the emotional stakes until you get the big final action scene, filled with warring tribes on the ground, dogfights in the skies and, yes, armored rhinos, that leaves you exiting the theater feeling fulfilled on that front but when you look back you realize just how little action is actually in the movie.
That's a testament to a few things working very well. There's the wonderful direction from Ryan Coogler that keeps the pace going and puts an emphasis on bringing out the most personality he can out of his actors. There's the incredible production value on display. Wakanda is bright, detailed, vibrant and just about every single shot, interior or exterior, offers a visual feast for the eyes. From cinematography to production design to wardrobe to makeup, all departments are way on point.
I suppose there could be human beings in this world that will be upset that Black Panther is isn't wall to wall kicking and scratching and stabbing and punching, but they'd be overlooking some pretty great character work to complain about it. Hard to believe comic book fans would complain about the little stuff, though, right?
Oddly enough Black Panther himself is one of the least interesting characters in this film. He's not a bad character by any means and Chadwick Boseman is more confident in his performance than he was in Civil War, but the very nature of T'Challa's place in this story forces him to be a bit more serious. He's taking on the mantle of King. There's no conflict about that even if he does feel the weight of the throne. His struggle in the movie is all about his desire to be a good King, but not knowing if he can be. He's terrified of letting his country down, but even from early on he doesn't let that fear control him.
So as a character he doesn't grow too much. He's steadfastly good-hearted, a rock for his people, but with the weight of that responsibility on him the whole time.
That allows the movie to get stolen by some more colorful, looser performances. Everybody is going to walk away from this movie adoring Letitia Wright's Shuri. She's T'Challa's sister and kind of Q from James Bond folded into Tony Stark. She's smart, but young and so, so full of smart-ass that she brightens literally every scene she's in just by being there.
Then there's Danai Gurira, playing Okoye, the head of the royal guard and loyal to the throne above all else. Gurira could have played this more serious and been badass and intimidating, but by going the more human route she becomes so much richer. She's cocksure and an incredible warrior, but she's also kind and funny and willing to call it like it is, no matter who she's talking to.
Okoye also happens to have the most internal conflict in the movie. She's incredibly loyal, but her oath is sworn to the throne, not a specific king. So when the big bad guy comes in and challenges T'Challa to the throne her alliance is tested. She knows Erik Killmonger is bad news and doesn't like his politics. She also knows that T'Challa is a better king, but that's not her choice to make.
It's a fascinating place to put the greatest warrior asset in this film and Danai Gurira sells every aspect of it; the doubt, the resolve, the badassness, the conflict... it's all there and Gurira makes it look effortless as she somehow expresses it all from scene to scene.
I brought up Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, who we know is the bad guy because he spells his name with the evil 'K' instead of the heroic 'C'. Another of this film's strengths is we actually have a good, well-rounded villain. That's not to say Killmonger isn't diabolical at certain points. There definitely fun had and some rhetorical mustaches get twirled, but you can see things from his point of view.
In many ways he's a stronger leader than T'Challa. He may not be as wise and good-hearted, but he has a plan to save his people... not just the safe, hidden world of Wakanda, but all repressed people of color all over the world. It's time to shift the power away from those who enslaved and back to the people who were wronged. He's not wrong that societies are built to prevent that power from shifting and his plan isn't about making him ruler of the world, really. There's an altruistic undercurrent to the reason he wants the power.
The easy comparison is that T'Challa is MLK and Killmonger is Malcolm X. They have similar goals and desires, but Killmonger is impatient and willing to use more aggressive tactics. This leads to a faceoff that is actually very dramatic and not just CGI dudes punching each other a lot. There's that, too, of course, but there's meaning behind it and the stakes for winning or losing this fight is high. The result will define the conscience of a whole nation.
Coogler brings all this to screen in an authentic way that can't be denied. The Afrofuturist look executed so well and automatically makes this a different kind of superhero film. The uniqueness is a fresh flavor for the MCU and on a deeper societal level carries with it a level of representation previously unseen. Yes, we've had great roles for people of color in tentpole cinema, but this isn't just about having a strong black man in a costume, it's about embracing a culture and giving it the same love and signal boosting attention as we do with our traditional European heroes.
I know I started this review kinda making fun of the woke reviewers, but it is something you can not separate when watching this movie. At least I, a white man quickly approaching middle age, couldn't. That feel of something new is so tied in with the character and the story being told and the world they've built is unquestionably at the forefront of this movie, which could piss off a lot of the more right-leaning white folks that see the movie, but the counter to that is it's going to inspire so many more people on the other side of that coin for exactly the same reasons. Black Panther doesn't hide its differences. It celebrates them. That is the takeaway here and that is what feels revolutionary about the whole project.
I hope this if the first of many like giant mega blockbuster films. The box office predictions seem to indicate it might be. There's one thing Hollywood like above all else and that's money. If it become financially safe to make these kinds of movies with this kind of diverse cast then the door will be blown wide open.
That's exciting, not just from a politically progressive standpoint, but also a cinema-loving standpoint. More diverse voices means more diverse storytelling, which means better, less predictable movies. Also, as a comic book movie fan, it means at least Marvel is still in the business of changing things up. Guardians of the Galaxy changed the feeling of what superhero movies could be. Black Panther does it as well. That will be why Marvel succeeds for another 10 years.