“It flies so high, absorbing ideas, spouting momentum and enthusiasm, that it avoids the nature of these big superhero projects to feel shoehorned.”
by Ken Bakely
More than anything, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a celebratory film – it flies so high, absorbing ideas, spouting momentum and enthusiasm, that it avoids the nature of these big superhero projects to feel shoehorned. And despite its size, it’s a singular piece of work, unified under a propulsive vision, brought to life with a dynamic verve. What’s most important is that it feels like it’s about something, cleaving through the stop-start tendencies of its studio contemporaries to nervously comment on the themes surrounding it, and coming right out with the pronouncement of a vision. When we read a title card at the end declaring that “Black Panther will return in Avengers: Infinity War,” we’re almost surprised by this jetting reminder of the character’s place in a franchise defined by its billion dollar chapters and two billion dollar reunions. But we’re not dismayed, because we know that he can survive the transition.
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) can pretty much survive anything, a sentiment which takes on literal effect at several points during the film. He’s a pop symbol for a worldview that has seemingly little pull these days: the kind of benevolent civic nationalism that holds the value of a people and the benefits of a broader world in a precarious and fair balance, evolving to a new point of order. His actual name is T’Challa, and he’s the new king of the African nation of Wakanda, on paper an impoverished atlas footnote, but secretly the most technologically advanced society on earth. It’s powered by a near-infinite resource of vibranium, a rare and potent metal, and almost immediately the subject of a usurper’s attack. Vibranium is what gives the nation its levitating trains and glimmering cities, as well as T’Challa’s superhero technology. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former American operative, disrupts Wakanda’s narrative of extreme isolationism, and makes a credible claim to the throne, wishing to violently relinquish the world’s African diaspora from their colonized past.
From here, Black Panther’s battles are ones of destiny, history, and ideology. Though we see typically staged rounds of high-key, low-key fights between groups, Coogler escapes the pratfalls of formal genericism by adding layers to the film’s stakes. Jordan’s Killmonger is the most well-realized villain that’s ever set foot in a Marvel movie, and his rough childhood in Oakland in the early 1990s is both a characterization tactic and a driving perspective. He envisions a world that is Wakanda, and a Wakanda that is the world. The irony is that in using the vibranium reserve for the creation of global militias and forceful takeovers, his plan to free people from a European past requires the same tactics that those powers used when achieving their own ends. The character is less of an antagonist than he is a tragically failed hero. His vengeful ego trip to lead an empire precludes his philosophical desires.
This is key to understanding Black Panther. The film acknowledges the greater ideal at hand, shared universally – an emphasizing of cultural heritage, which in turn inspires its aesthetic and execution. It’s certainly the first major movie whose production design is so inspired by Afrofuturism, as traditional garb is augmented by sleek tech whilst spaceships rove across the plains. Ludwig Göransson’s score is sufficiently intuitive to fit both sweeping overhead shots of the rainforest under which the real Wakanda lies, and a slick car chase through the streets of Busan, as T’Challa, his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and revered warrior Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) pursue Klaue (Andy Serkis), an early ally in Killmonger’s quest for vibranium control. As Coogler slides the pieces around, he never loses sight of the mosaic that powers the script, the potency of his message, and most visibly, the diversity of his strong cast.
It’s a thrill to see Nyong’o and Wright give life to powerful women who shape this story, and amusing to see the racial ratio flipped. Token comic relief and bland support falls on one of the film’s few white characters, CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), whose realization of the truth of Wakanda’s status is as comic as it is broadly indicative. Black Panther’s successes lie in its divergences from the mold it still shares with countless other movies. Identically filmed action setpieces can still burst with entertainment when interesting people are thrust into them. This is a bounding step for the evolution of a media franchise as a capital-heavy art form. “Black Panther will return,” that title card still reads. But thanks to the efforts of this jubilant first installment, he’ll return this spring to a movie world that’s smarter and more aware than the one he entered. When Boseman is decked out in T’Challa’s jet-black suit, his very presence is a towering force. But underneath the complex gear, that character still remains: the king, the fighter, the man. Here is a superhero movie which knows that better than just about any other, and won’t let us forget.