a BLACK PANTHER musing
Marvel has been consistently killing the game since 2008 (insert shameless plug for my MCU Retrospective Musings here), but they seemed to have found a comfortable formula in the past two years or so. Those films relied heavily on lots of comedic moments, which had a habit of following serious conversations or developments. The dramatic effect of those scenes was lost, landing with a softer impact because of the jokes. The worst offender was THOR: RAGNAROK which leaned so much into comedy that the drama was fleeting. GUARDIANS 2 had tons of heart and great father-son relationships which kept that tension throughout the many laughs that didn’t work. Not satisfied with breaking just one Marvel trend, BLACK PANTHER raises the bar with its strong cast and one of the best villains, political themes, beautiful cinematography, and a strong handle on its message.
The trailers didn’t lock me in as I had hoped or as much as it did for other people. They were pretty action-heavy, but knowing director Ryan Coogler’s filmography (FRUITVALE STATION and CREED), I was hoping the dramatic beats in PANTHER were not being shown in the trailers. Turns out you haven’t seen anything yet, since Marvel’s marketing team continues to cut trailers that omit a lot of key moments.
I was surprised by the depth of the story, and how it handles its themes. (If you’re looking for a quick synopsis:) Coming off of the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, T’Challa, the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, returns to Wakanda, a notoriously closed-borders/isolationist African country, to fully assume his rightful place as king. He must grapple with the duties of a king and responsibilities, while dealing with the threat of an invading outsider. On the surface, it’s a simple story of a person growing into a new role, but as the first African superhero, the Black Panther is much more than that. A king/leader is and should be a symbol for and to their people, and T’Challa learns to embody those characteristics. Boseman carries that weight dependably (I mean, I gave him a MARZON-YEAH! Award back in 2016!), but he gets overshadowed by the rest of the cast. As a black person, Black Panther will be a symbol of strength and determination for black people all around the world, and it’s amazing that they fit a lot of what he goes through and that thematic heft into a Marvel movie.
It’s even more astonishing that they give one of the best arcs in any Marvel movie to their villain. Michael B. Jordan outshined everyone in the cast, bringing gravitas and nuance to his Erik Stevens (aka Killmonger). Jordan starred in Coogler’s previous films, and his performances in those opened streams from my eyes. He really is Coogler’s muse, and gets a lot of meat to chew on as Killmonger. Erik isn’t just a villain to serve T’Challa’s story; he has an arc, filled with heart, and we as an audience understand and sympathize with him. He strolls into each scene oozing charisma and swag. He’s dangerous; every time he appears, his unpredictability made me uncomfortable and actually scared of what he would do next. We get introduced to a lot of new characters, and while we grow to love them, they feel expendable because we’re just getting to know them. It’s been a while since a Marvel movie had this much real stakes.
The women of Wakanda really get their day in the sun, with Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright stealing every scene they’re in as Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri, respectively. They’re not badass for badass’ sake, but also very complex while kicking ass. Each of them are great additions to the MCU, and could each get their own spinoff and they’d be fantastic. The rest of the supporting cast gets their own scene to shine, and it’s magic to see everyone work so incredibly well in this world.
Everyone around our title character is so good and worthy of their own movie that T’Challa doesn’t stand out as much. I never thought that that would become somewhat of a problem with this movie, though. If this movie was just called WARRIORS OF WAKANDA or something like that, I wouldn’t mind.
In the past week since I’ve seen the movie, I’ve found it difficult to truly find a problem with BLACK PANTHER. It’s truly a rip-roaring movie that is distinctively a Ryan Coogler film first. He and his team take their time to flesh out the world of Wakanda, albeit slowly, establishing the isolationist country and its citizens. Its pacing in the first 30 minutes or so seemed troublesome, but work so well in the greater context of what Coogler is doing. It took a while for the movie to find its footing, but once it did, it was glorious. He lets quiet moments breathe, and doesn't resort to following them with an out-of-place joke, ruining the impact. Adding to Coogler’s vision was newly Oscar-nominated (and the first black woman to do so) cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shoots Wakanda in all its majesty, adds context and deeper meaning with unique camera movements, and portrays each intimate scene so delicately. When the direction, cinematography, acting, music/score and production design all sync up, it’s fireworks on screen.
I came close to letting a tear fall in GUARDIANS 2 and CIVIL WAR, but BLACK PANTHER was the first time in a Marvel movie where I couldn’t hold back. It’s a great exploration of the current black state and extremely empowering. In the same way WONDER WOMAN inspired girls last summer (whose powerful scenes brought me to tears as well), PANTHER will be a movie that inspires a whole culture, regardless of gender. It’s a movie that understands its source material and target audience, with something to say, containing a message I never thought I would see in a Marvel movie. BLACK PANTHER is a brave, important film for this day and age, and left me happy and hopeful.
RATING: BEST OF THE BEST
(Refer to my rating system HERE!)