With an unprecedented seventeen movies released in just under 10 years, Marvel Studios has molded audience expectations, not just for the superhero genre, but for all contemporary blockbusters. This success has also brought a seemingly endless fatigue upon us movie lovers, who have long been wishing for a franchise makeover. “Black Panther,” the eighteenth chapter in the Marvel canon, is the answer to our prayers. While I may not be whole-heartedly convinced that it is the series’ absolute best, “Black Panther” blazes too great a trail to belittle. The most subversive of its kind since “Logan,” and the most thrillingly adult since “The Dark Knight,” it wields a strength never before seen in this level of filmmaking.
Upon returning his home of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the mantle of king, after the murder of his father, T’Chaka. Following his coronation, T’Challa is faced with the decision to reveal Wakanda’s technological superiority, propelled by and kept secret by their use of vibranium, to the world. Unbeknownst to him, that decision, and his very position as king is threatened by the rise of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a ruthless black-ops soldier who seeks to claim the throne for himself. As T’Challa comes closer to confronting this new foe, so does he discover shocking truths about his father’s legacy.
At the helm of this new feat is Ryan Coogler, the man behind the tearjerker “Fruitvale Station” and the triumphant “Rocky” sequel/spin-off “Creed” (both also star Jordan in the lead roles). Coogler gets a number of things right that are all worthy of discussion in a separate review, but chief among his achievements is the refusal to adhere to formula and to generate easy satisfaction. Marvel’s signature brand of humor, which has been scoffed at increasingly with each installment, is used sparingly and in service of the story, rather than in a derivative, self-referential manner. Better yet, no single character is left unchallenged or unscathed by their commitment to action and purpose, raising stakes that put most ensemble efforts featuring malevolent sky-beams to shame.
This refreshingly sober attitude is rooted in the immaculate realization of Wakanda and its key players. What makes Coogler’s presentation of the vibranium-laced city particularly beautiful is that, for the first time in a franchise so deeply rooted in American ideals and settings, it opens our eyes to a world beyond our own and yet inherently ours. Wakanda is, of course, a nation of non-American traditions, yet the hearts within it beat just as well as those in New York or any other American city. One need not look to hard to find the hearts within the film’s central players, thanks to a phenomenal cast. Boseman’s vibrant stoicism is as much defined by his intuitions as it is by those who surround him. The greatest performances at his side come from Danai Gurira and newcomer Letita Wright, who absolutely kill it as General Okoye and T’Challa’s brainiac sister Shuri, respectively. Andy Serkis also returns as Ulysses Klaue from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and he’s just as magnetic in human form as he is behind a multitude of 0s and 1s. Jordan, however, sits atop this pyramid of talent, delivering one of the franchise’s best villains in a very long time.
“Black Panther” does falter a bit when fists fly and bodies defy gravity. Coogler’s inexperience with action is unfortunately apparent in the film’s uneven mix of balletic long takes and Bourne-style cutting, as well as in the half-baked CGI backdrops and stunt doubles that nearly deflate the tension. Nevertheless, the urgency of each sequence is kept intact, spawning from the immediate drama without detracting for the sake of one-punch fan service. Ludwig Goransson’s score, which blends western harmonies with African percussion and vocals, proves to be a mighty aid here too. This symphony reaches its apex during a casino brawl a la “John Wick” or "James Bond,” only it features Danai Gurira kicking major ass with a spear.
What ultimately separates “Black Panther” from the rest of the MCU is its unflinching commitment to its own themes and politics rather than figuring out how it fits into the grand scheme of the franchise. It is also one of the only superhero films to suggest that good and evil are not absolutes; that saving the lives of many might cost the ones closest to you, and that evil deeds can be the byproduct of good intentions. T’Challa’s own father even states (from beyond the grave) that it is hard for a good man to be king. Marvel movies, or most blockbusters for that matter, don’t get much more provocative than this.