Colin Vanden Berg
Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
Marvel Studios filmmakers and executives promise the fans that each new Marvel Universe film will separate itself from the others in style, structure, and genre. While the films do all fit into clear genres, the studio’s three 2017 films, “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume II,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor Rangarock,” demonstrated that even Marvel films with very distinct genre conventions can still mirror each other in style and tone.
“Black Panther,” the studio’s first 2018 outing, emphatically breaks that mold. The wildly entertaining and emotionally resonant film proves that Marvel can make a film that stands on its own merits as a remarkable achievement separate from the cinematic universe. Not since 2012’s “The Avengers” has the famed film studio accomplished that feat to this degree.
“Black Panther” is written and directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) and stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, king of the African nation, Wakanda. T’Challa must cement his own rule distinct from his deceased father’s, a task made difficult by the emergence of Erik Killmonger (Michal B. Jordan), a man with a vastly different vision for Wakanda and a claim to the throne.
Coogler interprets this Black Panther story as a Shakespearean drama with elements of classic “James Bond.” The story spans the globe thanks to Wakanda’s influence around the world. The central narrative, however, focuses squarely on the politics of this vibrant fictional nation, and the conflicting philosophies of the royal family. Coogler’s characters are complex and believable, and their struggles—informed by modern realities of Africa and African Americans—are believable and relatable regardless of race or ethnicity.
The film features an impressive ensemble of actors who deliver Coogler’s story and message brilliantly. Boseman’s performance is even more powerful in this film than in his standout role from “Captain America: Civil War.” He portray’s T’Challa’s inner conflict wile adapting to leadership with sacrificing his commanding presence and royal swagger. Other standouts include Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister Shuri, Winston Drake as rival chief M’Baku, and Martin Freeman as FBI Agent Everet Ross.
No review of this film is complete, however, without mentioning Michael B. Jordan’s scene-stealing and star-cementing turn as the villainous Erik Killmonger. In the few weeks since “Black Panther’s” release, Jordan’s striking, complex, and surprisingly sympathetic Killmonger has already established himself as the best Marvel villain since Loki. Killmonger’s all-too-real back-story and motivation makes “Black Panther” the most political Marvel film yet, beating out the “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” by having its message tied to a more relatable antagonist.
“Black Panther” excels as a dramatic character study, a spy film, and occasional comedy, but it barely exceeds minimum standards as an action film. The action set-pieces are exciting enough, but more thanks to the tension provided by Coogler’s incredible script than because of the unexceptional choreography or the occasionally shaky visual effects. Also, the film drags mid way through the second act, creating the slightest amount of fatigue leading into the outstanding final act.
“Black Panther” is an outstanding superhero film because director Ryan Coogler takes focus away from bombastic action—of which there is some—and puts it squarely on the intricate relationships amongst the central characters, and their personal journeys of discovery. The themes pay homage to African traditions and African American culture, but are also universal enough to be understood and accepted at face value by all people regardless of personal background. The film also appeals to people of all ages by including some element of value for everyone. It’s a cinematic experience that should not be missed before it finishes its theatrical run.