Full disclosure: I attended a screening of Marvel’s Black Panther on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 6, the same afternoon Marvel Studios lifted the embargo for critics who saw the movie at earlier screenings.
Of course, the disadvantage of seeing the film the same day the first (almost universally positive) reviews surfaced meant by the time I was ready to write down my thoughts many of them were already reflected in reviews you’ve probably already read.
Of course, the advantage of seeing the film the same day the first (almost universally positive) reviews surfaced meant by the time I was ready to write down my thoughts many of them were already reflected in reviews you’ve probably already read.
So, I’m considering this a freeing experience. While other, more eloquent movie credits have already elaborated in great and varied detail on the genuine, significant, and welcome social significance of Black Panther, the first Marvel Studios/ comic book/superhero/expected-global blockbuster with a predominately Black cast and a multitude of strong female characters, this review is going to focus on Black Panther as just newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe…
… and the good news is it’s very much an MCU film through and through.
And the bad news is it’s sometimes too much of an MCU film through and through.
But don’t worry - despite a few unforced errors, it remains a significant Marvel Studios achievement.
More of a ‘coming of age’ story than a superhero origin story per se, Black Panther is the most freestanding Marvel film since Iron Man. Aside from brief flashbacks to Captain America: Civil War, the presence of Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, and the very last scene before the theater lights go up, director and co-writer (with Joe Robert Cole) Ryan Coogler’s screenplay makes almost no mention of characters or circumstances from the larger MCU. Coogler provides no cues towards May’s Avengers: Infinity War, despite that we now know Wakanda serves as a significant location in that film. If you’re looking for clues why, they aren’t readily apparent here.
Beginning surprisingly in another time and place we won’t spoil, when the film returns to the ‘present day’ we catch up with T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) seemingly just moments or days after the finale of Civil War. Not yet officially crowned king after his father’s death, we get to witness the ritual in which he claims the throne, and along the way meet a diverse set of characters who serve as the backbone of Black Panther.
T'Challa/Boseman plays a kind of Jerry Maguire/Tom Cruise figure. He’s going through a significant life change and doesn’t quite know who he is yet, and he’s being pulled in all directions by a cast who all get to revel in more showy supporting roles.
Letitia Wright as effervescent younger sister and technical genius Shuri and The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira’s as Okoyo, the ultra-no-nonsense leader of the Dora Milaje, well deserve their advanced notice as breakout characters. Someone who haven’t got as much notice is Winston Duke as T'Challa’s Wakandan rival M'Baku, who after an inconspicuous introduction walks away with his later scenes and plays a pivotal role in the finale.
Frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan as Erik ‘Killmonger’, varying in a slight but important way from his comic book inspiration, joins Michael Keaton in perhaps the most significant MCU development in the last 12 months – they’re starting to get their villains right.
Like Keaton’s the Vulture, the highly-dynamic Jordan’s Killmonger isn’t just a typical MCU power-hungry nihilist. He’s power-hungry alright, but his motivation for the power is at the heart of why Black Panther isn’t just an important film, but an important MCU film. His politics are both at the same time sympathetic and divisive, and here’s hoping Marvel can continue this trend moving forward. It can only improve upon an already winning formula taking an already unprecedented shared universe to a whole other level.
Performance-wise, Boseman kind of draws the short straw here. Because the script requires him to absorb all the different perspectives of the characters around him, it leaves him regal but a little bland. Boseman has gravitas until tomorrow, but he doesn’t get to have a lot of fun and he even unfortunately plays somewhat of a surprise passive role in events that lead to the finale on a technicality.
You’ll see what we mean.
That finale of course is a grand, CGI-powered battle scene and hero-villain showdown which is very Marvel-Studios-by-the-numbers. It’s hard to argue with the success of the formula – they obviously know the demographic well but the less typical Marvel film may have been better served by a less typical third act.
But then again, this one has armored rhinos. That’s right, the MCU finally has armored rhinos. What took them so long?
Kidding aside, the Afro-centric exotic-ness of Wakanda is the Black Panther’s secret weapon. Several months back Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige hinted that new and exotic locales was the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For a shared universe that has already visited the 1940’s, Asgard, the Astral Plane, the Quantum Realm and dozens of other planets, the fact that its most exotic and arguably most interesting location is steeped on a real continent right here on Earth is many more conversations for many other days.
But for today the MCU is now bigger and better than ever before and for the next few months anyway refreshingly detached from the same background narrative. More Wakanda and its wonderful residents will be welcome and hopefully also portends even greater expansion of the universe.
For these reasons Black Panther rightfully takes his place along with Iron Man, the Avengers, and the Guardians of the Galaxy as one of MCU’s use most significant mile markers.