I’m beginning to think that Ryan Coogler can do no wrong. No matter what kind of film he’s making, he manages to combine an intellectually complex story with vibrant filmmaking techniques. He did it in 2013 with his low-budget true-life tragedy Fruitvale Station. In 2015, he did it by elevating a down-and-out series of boxing films with themes of lineage and self-worth. And now, in 2018, he has wowed us yet again by taking a superhero genre film and elevating it to Shakespearean levels, not unlike Kurosawa did with the samurai film or John Ford did with the Western. Black Panther is a thrilling, complex film that pushes the bounds of what a superhero film can and should be, both visually and narratively.
Thousands of years ago, the African nation of Wakanda was developed on the site of a massive meteor filled with vibranium, the most precious and advanced element the world has ever known. The tribes of the nation came together to mine the material, quickly becoming the most advanced nation on Earth – a fact they hide through illusions in order to avoid entering into the conflicts of other countries. They are ruled over by a King, who is handed the sacred mantle of the super powered “Black Panther.” After the recent death of his father, that mantle passes to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir to the throne. However, when a threat from his father’s past, including black market dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and a mysterious U.S. black-ops soldier named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), T’Challa must prove that he is worthy of being king, along with the aide of his former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his right-hand woman Okoye (Danai Gurira), his younger sister and tech guru Shuri (Letitia Wright), and reluctant CIA liaison Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).
I don’t want to dwell on this point for too long, but I feel it is something worth mentioning: the cultural importance of this film can be felt throughout. We learned last June how important it was for young girls to finally see a hero that represented them in Wonder Woman. Black Panther gives that same sense of vibrant importance to young African-Americans, but it goes beyond just that. For this isn’t just a film where one African king kicks ass and takes names – this is a film where a black man gets to be as badass as Superman or Batman, all while flanked by a team of hyper-intelligent, ultracool black women who are just as capable of saving the day. These are roles and representatives that Hollywood rarely has given to these communities – the closest example would have to be Shaft. And like Shaft, Coogler offers audiences – and black audiences in particular – a cool, sophisticated, funny hero that they can idolize and emulate. However, while representation in film is important, and deserves to be celebrated until such a time when it is no longer rare, it can only get you so far. If the film doesn’t hold up under its own weight, any impressive strides it made are completely useless.
Luckily, that’s where the film’s thematic heft comes to play. Unlike any superhero film to come before, with the possible exceptions of X2: X-Men United and The Dark Knight, Black Panther chooses to use its genre to explore heavier themes and ideas, specifically in the way of social commentary. Now, this isn’t entirely unique to genre filmmaking – the Western has been used to explore McCarthyism, and horror has been used to tackle everything from depression to racism – however, very rarely does the superhero genre dabble in such waters. And yet, here we are: a film where people in costumes take extended breaks from the action to debate Interventionalism vs. Isolationism. T’Challa’s ascension to the throne puts him in the middle of this exact complex question. While he wishes to continue his father’s legacy of keeping Wakanda’s resources hidden from the world (“If you let the refugees in, you bring their problems with them”), he faces challenges to this isolationism from all sides. Nakia, having served as a spy throughout Africa, wants to start providing aid to those suffering from disease, poverty, and oppression around the world. Meanwhile, his rival, Erik, believes the best way to repair the world’s flaws through imperialism (the greatest threat this world has ever known). This view is complicated by Erik’s backstory, as we learn that he was “radicalized” by the racism he experienced in his lifetime. It’s a fascinating, unique angle, and while the correct answer (that we see thoughtfully played out over the film’s running time) is a balance (providing aid without overthrowing or conquering to do so) between the options, the fact that we’re already presented with a three-dimensional villain whose views are understandable, albeit still wrong and corrupt, is a rare treat. The film also reaches out to explore other themes, including relationships between fathers and sons, and how the sins of the father can be passed down from parent to child (a frequent theme in Coogler’s works), the idea of whether you can be both a good man and a good ruler, and the idea of country vs. morality. These are themes usually explored in the works of great literature. In fact, it’s downright Shakespearean. The entire production plays as a sort of cross between Hamlet, Richard III, and Henry V, and it adds a gravitas to a pleasant, intelligent film.
And still Coogler refuses to stop with making the most thematically rich superhero film in years, as he also sets out to make the film a visual cornucopia of game-changing images. I think his greatest strength has always been world-building. Every sequence in this film feels stunning, gorgeous, and perfectly natural. No detail needs explanation, no matter how odd it looks at first glance (the best sign for a fantasy/sci-fi/superhero film). Hell, even the prologue is insanely beautiful and eye-popping. Every frame has had great effort put into it, and a particular shot that symbolically reflects the world turning upside down should instantly cement Rachel Morrison as one of the greatest cinematographers in history. Similarly, the costumes are from another realm altogether. They reflect a cross between eye-popping futurism and the African diaspora, and each shade of red, gold, black, and purple feels vivid and engrossing. And similarly, the score by Ludwig Göransson combines the sounds of African drums and choirs with a futuristic hip-hop mix in order to create the best Marvel score yet. Honestly, the film’s only missteps come in the course of its strongest features. The dialogue alternates between jokes and Shakespearean soliloquys with relative ease, but occasionally it does misstep, such as a sequence with a poorly placed “What are those?!?” joke. And furthermore, Coogler has a habit of letting the action get away from him, often cutting too quickly to get a handle on what is happening or to savor any sense of enjoyment in the matter. Still, he does have a few moments of brilliance on that front: there’s a tracking shot through a brawl inside a casino that’s absolutely bonkers to watch, and a car chase sequence is truly applause worthy in how alive it feels. I don’t want to harp on the negatives for too long, however – things that feel this unique and game-changing are very rarely perfect, and it feels wrong to tear it down too much for some honest (and common) missteps.
Amongst the cast, there are nothing but winners. The two leads to this film: the heroic Chadwick Boseman lends a gravitas to the production that makes his hero’s journey feel brave and dramatic – and he plays cool so effortlessly. Meanwhile, Michael B. Jordan continues to prove that he’s the most talented actor out there by playing Erik as a sarcastic, pained loner who wants to achieve freedom for his people by any means necessary. He may be a villain, but he’s a tragic villain, and one whom we can sympathize with even as we cheer for his downfall. Danai Gurira is her normal badass self as Okoye, and Lupita Nyong’o brings a sense of morality to the production. Daniel Kaluuya follows up his Oscar nomination with another highly intelligent, complex character in W’Kabi, and Martin Freeman continues to be his charming, awkward self. Amongst the older actors, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Andy Serkis all make an impact as the Horatio-esque guru, the mother to the King, and the comic relief madman threatening the heroes. However, if this film has a secret weapon, it’s Letitia Wright as Shuri, the 16-year-old princess of Wakanda and the country’s chief scientist. Wright is hilarious and charming in her role, creating a lovable, whimsical cross between Alfred and Q, all in the body of a teenaged black girl. She is a find, and should be treated as such.
Black Panther is a magnificent achievement for the superhero genre, feeling like a cross between Shaft, Batman, and James Bond. It combines visually striking filmmaking with a complex story, all packaged in a bubblegum-pop wrapper. From beginning to end, I was invested in a superhero film in a way I haven’t been for a long time, and that fact excites me. However, I’m more excited for the effect this film will have on pop culture. The final shot of this film involves a young black boy looking up to T’Challa with awe and pride, and that detail speaks miles. This film isn’t just supposed to further a franchise or simply sell movie tickets (although it accomplishes both of these feats as well) – it’s supposed to provide hope for every young African-American out there, to tell them that they, too, can be a hero. It’s a message I can get onboard with, and I’m happy that this film was the vehicle to do so.