by Michael B. Hock
It’s important to remember that at this point in his career, Ryan Coogler has directed three full length movies. Fruitvale Station won critics over with its portrayal of a the last 24 hours of a man who would be shot to death by police. Creed is a spinoff to the Rocky franchise, and is somehow better than all of the other Rockys with the exception of the first one. These two movies, while hitting on similar themes, were vastly different in tone, style, and exactly what story they wanted to tell. In one, he was open to do what he wanted, while in the other, he was taking on an established franchise that consists of 6 sequels and is a pretty limiting sandbox to play in. So when he was tasked with writing and directing Black Panther, the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he seemed an interesting choice. He clearly showed he could do a film with meaning, and he showed he could play in that established sandbox while adding his own themes, but could he translate it to a blockbuster mega franchise?
Yes. Yes he can.
Black Panther picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T’Chaka, king of the fictional African Nation of Wakanda has been killed, and his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is on his way home to take his place not only in ruling the country, but also in the whole “dressing up in a Panther costume and fighting crime” type thing. Meanwhile, villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), having been de-armed in Avengers: Age of Ultron has resurfaced with a new partner, could-he-be-a-bad-guy-with-the-name “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) to claim the throne of Wakanda. A comic book movie ensues.
There’s a lot to unpack in Black Panther. Coogler deftly works past the main handicap for the movie: mostly that a large portion of what sets it in motion was in Captain America: Civil War, and that it’s going to happen all over again in Avengers: Infinity War in a few months. T’Challa has already had a pretty strong arc in that movie in which he’s faced the person who murdered his father, learned to forgive, and let Iron Man wail on the guy who was framed. Coogler gets past this by setting a story firmly in Wakandian lore: one in which he must face up to who his father was, and that his father, while a wonderful and loving king, was also a flawed man, and a former Black Panther himself. That’s one of the things that makes this movie so wonderful: Coogler doesn’t shy away from the aspects that make this a comic book movie. Too often Marvel movies take a few minutes to wink to the camera to let you know “Wow, this magic word sure is silly” or “hey, look everyone… a talking raccoon and a tree are besties!” But while Black Panther has some humor, it’s never at the expense of what makes not only this movie so wonderful, but comic book movies in general.
He also knows how to work pacing of a movie. That’s not something I typically think about, but this is not a short movie, and never once was I looking at my watch.
There’s also the design of Wakanda, the futuristic city that’s been built around vibranium. The super-futuristic world of the city meshes wonderfully with the African huts that are almost right down the street. It’s a world that looks familiar like it almost could exist in reality, but at the same time there are cloaking ships and an army of bald women who can mow down anyone who might look at the king the wrong way. Or you know, just because they felt like it. The futuristic designs and gadgets are designed by T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) who approaches everything with an enthusiasm that many of us have lost in watching so many science fiction movies lately. Seriously, go take a look at what people say whenever a new Star Wars or Star Trek movie comes out and they start comparing the technology to what we have… I want us all to look at Shuri and that’s how we should be doing with the latest whatever. It helps that Wright throws herself into the role, and again: takes it seriously while having fun.
In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the bunch. Boseman approaches his role with a weight of a king, and Jordan’s villain is convincing enough that for a while, I was on his side. (Minus the Black Panther killing agenda, of course.) A big standout, of course, is Danai Gurira as Okoye, the badass head of the all female special forces that defend the king. Whether she’s just guarding the king, or throwing her wig during an attack, she’s one of the best things in the movie. I hope she gets her own action franchise, and soon.
A lot has been written about how important this film is… I can’t argue with any of that. As the superhero genre starts to really expand, we’re going to see more movies like this one, one that starts to show more representation and that reminds people that comic books have long wanted to be a tool of inclusion for everyone. Black Panther accomplishes this, but I don’t want it lost: This is a good movie. It’s a complex movie that tackles strong themes. It’s doesn’t shy away from the fact that it is a comic book spectacle… there’s plenty of fighting and explosions and comic book moments that aren’t undercut with trying to be above that. This is a comic book movie that wraps itself up in the fact that it’s a comic book, and it’s better for it. The wonder that we all feel when first read these books is translated perfectly to the page.
Simply put: See this movie. It’s fantastic.