It’s become a cliché for reviews to proclaim that Marvel Studios’ newest movie is their best output yet. But “Black Panther” really is the best movie to bear the Marvel name; it’s the only one to draw tears from me. It isn’t just a beautiful or entertaining movie, it’s perfect.
“Black Panther” uses humor not just to entertain, but to tell us something about the characters, and avoids the usual trope of cutting tension for the sake of a laugh. The humorous impact may vary from person to person, but it worked for me. Every character has a meaningful arc brought to life by a fantastic cast.
Action scenes typically featured in superhero movies are present, but these feel different. The camera moves throughout sets without cutting and pulled back from the action, in a way which helps the viewer keep up on the fight with ease. The focus is on characters and what the fight means for them, not grand displays of acrobatic feats or power. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison makes these scenes dynamic, and a riveting soundtrack which combines the hip-hop rap melodies of Kendrick Lamar and traditional African music makes them better.
The drama of “Black Panther” is elevated because the movie is so well made. But without the drama created by the conflict between the hero and villain, I doubt that film would have struck so deeply with so many.
The film begins with narration that describes Wakanda’s politics, how it gained its wealth and why it lives in isolation from the rest of the world. Here Coogler begins adding world-building details which are common in these franchise films, but done excellently here because everything factors back into the narrative. Everything you watch matters; there are no details or moments used to set up something which may or may not get resolved in a sequel.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has gained the mantle of the Black Panther and the throne of Wakanda after his father’s assassination in “Captain America: Civil War.” Nearly all are thrilled to see him; they believe he’ll protect their way of life. Everyone is happy in Wakanda, all appear to prosper — but there exists a world beyond their borders where no one, let alone a superhero, has helped liberate millions from their everyday oppression. This is what the villain aims to change.
Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is a radical. He’s a man driven by anger that manifests as envy, as he has watched millions who are also of African descent be impoverished, incarcerated and/or murdered by every state on Earth. That is why he wants to redistribute Wakanda’s wealth, resources and weapons to the world’s poor, and give them the tools to topple their oppressors.
Killmonger’s hatred of the forces which have molded the modern world is entirely understandable. Director Ryan Coogler knows this, and that is why he portrays the villain as a victim, making him sympathetic. The viewer is forced to confront the reality that our hero, and perhaps many others like him, gained power from corrupt institutions which refuse to incite systematic change.
In a way, the two fight for the same cause. T’Challa’s first appearance in the film features him slaying men who are trafficking women in Africa. Killmonger murders too, each corpse becoming a step on his attempted ascension to the throne of Wakanda. Both of their actions aim to liberate. The difference is that Killmonger’s plan threatens one group’s way of life: the Wakandan people.
The film recognizes that this is necessary. One group living comfortably while others suffer is an injustice. Bridges, not borders, will make the world better for all — something T’Challa states in the film. The hero has to learn this from the villain, and it’s refreshing to see those set up as antagonists be treated as people with valid feelings and contributions. For far too long, these movies have conveniently reduced the antagonists to terrorists fueled by inexplicable hatred.
“Black Panther” is very much a Marvel Studios superhero movie—all of the familiar elements are still there. But it also feels like a movie born from the vision and perspective of a filmmaker rather than a company. Details such as the costumes and customs exhibited by the characters feel so authentic that they could only have been visualized by people who are actually connected to those things.
Writer-director Ryan Coogler and his team have created a movie which resembles a declaration of what true heroism is more than it does a product.