By Noah Howard
“Black Panther” is a far cry from the best Marvel movie, but it easily wins the title of best movie to carry the “Marvel” logo. Frequently hailed as a superhero masterpiece, Ryan Coogler’s film isn’t as fun, as funny or as fast as other recent superhero entries, but also not nearly as infantile and vacuous (and to other Marvel movie lovers, I mean that in the best way). “Black Panther” is the first of the modern generation of superhero movies that feels like it exists for more than popcorn-munching entertainment. It has a has a point, moments of emotional gutpunch, a coherent thematic vision, and, unlike the rest of the modern superhero canon, it has a soul.
Black Panther himself is a relatively unknown hero outside of those of us who pride ourselves (perhaps wrongly) in our knowledge of comic books. Similar to DC’s Batman, Black Panther is a semi-normal person (unlike Batman, he does have mildly enhanced strength) who relies largely on high-tech gadgetry and martial arts prowess to take down his foes in close-quarter combat. But more importantly, the Panther is the ruler of Wakanda, a hidden African nation with technology far beyond that of the rest of the world, serving as its protector: not only as its greatest soldier, but also as its leader.
“Black Panther,” then, is an origin story of a different sort. Prince T’Challa (the mandatory alter-ego, played with a perfect mix of reserve and vulnerability by Chadwick Boseman) is already well established as a superhero thanks to his appearance in “Captain America: Civil War,” but “Black Panther” sees him pick up the reigns as king as he navigates his first true political and moral crisis. He’s faced with confronting Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a rogue Wakandan with the expected apocalyptic intentions, but legitimate underlying motivations.
The dynamic between Killmonger and Black Panther is the highlight of the film, as, for the first time in the Marvel universe, Killmonger feels like a villain with presence, motivation, a rounded character and, most importantly, justifiable motivations. Though he’s painted unequivocally as the “bad guy” (his body is pockmarked with scars, one for every kill), both he and the titular protagonist serve to expose each other’s moral failings, finding the bad within the good and the good within the bad. It’s through this grayness that the film boldly touches on real-world issues, entering territory that almost all other blockbusters are afraid to even hint at.
But unique among first-entry Marvel movies, neither Black Panther nor his villain hog the spotlight. This is an ensemble film through and through, bolstered by a cast of equally badass warriors played by Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright. In yet another brave move (there are too many to list in a single review), Coogler hands center stage to them entirely during a lengthy section of the film from which T’Challa is entirely absent.
The only character that Coogler doesn’t fully service is Wakanda itself; while the colorful costume design and African-art inspired architecture make up many of the numerous visually striking scenes (“Black Panther” is often stunningly gorgeous), we spend as much time on a single waterfall and in an underground lab as we do in the capitol city itself. With such exquisite attention to detail, a more thorough visual walkthrough of the film’s world would’ve been appreciated, especially when the movie drags its feet with the pacing around the middle of the second act.
But “we want to see more” is hardly a significant complaint. More of anything in “Black Panther” would be nice—more time with the characters, more time with the world, more thrillingly shot Bond/John Wick-esque action scenes, because everything that’s already present is so well-realized. Marvel had already established itself as the name to look for in search of well-made blockbuster movies; only here have they shown that they could be the name to watch for well-made movies, period. We can’t deny that the superhero genre is rife with problems; if “Thor: Ragnarok” solved the problem of the established formula, “Black Panther” is an equally effective refutation to anyone who thinks superhero movies can’t be taken seriously. In the upcoming “Infinity War” duology, we can expect (and pray for) a significant purge of some major Marvel characters. We can only hope that T’Challa will pick up the mantle to rule in their stead.
Contact Noah Howard at noah364 ‘at’ stanford.edu.