Black Panther is a great MCU superhero adventure that smoothly blends rich narrative substance with sheer popcorn entertainment.
The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the final step on the winding journey to Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther gives Chadwick Boseman’s titular superhero a chance to shine in his own solo movie, following his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War. Working behind the camera as cowriter and director here is Ryan Coogler, who successfully instills the established MCU superhero movie template with a personal touch and directorial sensibility on Black Panther, much like he did on the Rocky spinoff/revival Creed three years ago. Combined with a cast and setting that break ground for representation in the world of blockbuster filmmaking, Coogler and his crew’s efforts result in one of the strongest additions to the MCU to date. Black Panther is a great MCU superhero adventure that smoothly blends rich narrative substance with sheer popcorn entertainment.
Black Panther picks up right after the events of Civil War, as T’Challa (Boseman) prepares to ascend to the throne of Wakanda, following the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani). However, no sooner is T’Challa named King than the country’s old enemy, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), emerges from the shadows, breaks into a British museum, and steals a rare Wakandan artifact made of Vibranium: the strongest metal on earth and the precious mineral that holds the key to Wakanda’s many secrets – from the country’s advanced technology to Black Panther’s impenetrable armor and the rare herb that provides him with his superhuman abilities.
T’Challa thus teams up with Okoye (Danai Guirra), the head of the Dora Milaje aka. the Black Panther’s personal bodyguards, and his former lover turned Wakandan secret agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), in order to track down Klaue and stop the black market arms dealer once and for all. However, it turns out that Klaue is little more than the mask worn by a far more dangerous enemy – one Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a determined man with a mysterious past who has big plans that not only threaten T’Challa’s reign as king, but the very future of Wakanda itself.
Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (a veteran of Marvel Studios’ bygone in-house writers program), Black Panther combines many of the best elements of MCU films past, including: the Shakespearean royal family drama of the Thor movies, the political thriller elements of Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and even the sci-fi tech aspects of the Iron Man films. Coupled with rich world-building that brings the long hidden land of Wakanda to striking life on the big screen, this allows Black Panther to breathe fresh life into familiar MCU plot and character tropes, without skimping on the shiny spectacle and playful humor that Marvel Studios movies are known for. Black Panther similarly builds on Thor: Ragnarok‘s subtextual exploration of colonialism by examining how Western colonization and enslavement of Africa continue to have rippling effects today, through the lens of the earth-based MCU.
T’Challa’s character arc in Black Panther is further informed by concerns about global isolationism and how the loss of cultural heritage impacts people, as are raised here with respect to Wakanda and its place in the larger MCU. While Boseman delivers another good performance in the role of the conflicted and newly crowned Wakandan king/superhero, this is the rare occasion where a MCU movie antagonist outshines the protagonist. Jordan’s Eric “Killmonger” Stevens is easily the most compelling and sympathetic Marvel Studios film baddie since Loki (and, arguably, the best MCU antihero yet), thanks to a combination of smart writing and an engaging performance by Jordan. After their work together on Fruitvale Station and Creed, Black Panther is further testament to Jordan and Coogler’s status as a powerhouse actor/director team, in this sense.
Among the other standouts in Black Panther are the women in T’Challa’s life, especially the characters of Okoye and Nakia, along with T’Challa’s tech genius younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). All three players are well-developed, fueled by their respective ideologies and goals, and armed with distinct personalities that shine through all the more thanks to the performances behind them (Wright’s Shuri, in particular, seems destined to become a fan-favorite). There are too many other supporting players in Black Panther for them to all shine equally bright, but the film’s ensemble is rock solid across the board – from key players in the story such as Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi (T’Challa’s confidant and ally) and Winston Duke as M’Baku (the powerful leader of Wakanda’s mountain tribe, the Jabari), to the Wakandan elders like Angela Basset’s Ramonda (T’Challa’s mother) and Forest Whitaker’s Zuri (keeper of the Heart-Shaped Herb). Former Hobbit trilogy costars Serkis and Martin Freeman likewise deliver here, reprising their roles as Klaue and Everett Ross from previous MCU films.
Black Panther further delivers the goods when it comes to craftsmanship, from the beautifully multicolored outfits by costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Selma) to the gorgeous Afrofuturism atheistic of the overarching film, as captured through Rachel Morrison’s often captivating cinematography. The action sequences and fight scenes in the first two acts of the movie are equally impressive in their staging, taking visual cues from sources that include Coogler’s own grounded boxing scenes in Creed, as well as many a James Bond film during a nightclub sequence right out of something like Skyfall. Black Panther‘s third act is less impressive by comparison, as the movie’s action gets bogged down in CGI overload and its plot beats lack the emotional resonance of earlier moments, either because they are rushed or a bit too conventional (re: predictable). Fortunately, the film recovers during its poignant final moments and brings its various narrative and thematic threads to a satisfying conclusion.
All things considered, Black Panther is both one of the best MCU movies yet and a watershed moment for big-budget tentpoles, when it comes to onscreen racial and cultural representation. While the film doesn’t fully break the Marvel Studios mold and has some of the same smaller issues as MCU installments past (e.g. some dubious color grading, humor that undercuts the drama), Black Panther is top-notch blockbuster filmmaking that combines slick spectacle with narrative substance. Casual moviegoers and hardcore MCU fans alike will be able to appreciate what Coogler and his collaborators have delivered here, thanks to the movie’s relatively standalone place in the greater franchise. That said, purely as a prelude to Infinity War, Black Panther should leave audiences excited to see what happens when Thanos comes to earth… and Wakanda.
Black Panther is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 134 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.
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