It looks like every time a new MCU film hits theaters, a debate ensues about where it stands in the studio’s increasingly expanding cinematic universe. Black Panther is the latest project to find itself at the center of such a discussion, and while it isn’t a perfect film, what it does well is so unique and compelling that it deserves to be mentioned among the best of the studio’s big-screen adventures so far.
Directed by Creed filmmaker Ryan Coogler from a script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther casts Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, the heir to the throne of the African nation of Wakanda. A highly quiet and high-tech nation, Wakanda is under protection by its king, who assumes the mantle of the Black Panther when he takes the crown and partakes of a mysterious flower that gives him super strength, speed, and other attributes. T’Challa shortly realizes his disciplines challenged by both inside and outside threats, which include the deadly arms dealer Ulysses Klaue and a dangerous stranger, Erik Killmonger Stevens, with a connection to Wakanda.
That Boseman made his debut as Black Panther in that film is fitting, as his first solo adventure in the role compares favorably to Chris Evans’ debut as the title character in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. In each of their original solo arcs, both actors succeed in avoiding letting their characters fall into the world of tradition caricature and comic book tropes, and seek the nuance that makes them more than ordinary superheroes.
T’Challa is a particularly fascinating protagonist due to his role as the leader of his nation, its most prominent ambassador, and its greatest weapon, all rolled into one character. Boseman adds a sincerity to T’Challa’s struggle to reconcile the desire to keep his kingdom safe with his desire to forge a greater good in the world, and this leads viewers into his struggle.
Although Boseman’s titular hero is the focus of the film, Black Panther is at its best when it leans on its excellent supporting cast.
Letitia Wright, the unfamiliar face, who portrays T’Challa’s younger sister and Wakanda’s resident technology expert, Shuri, is probably the biggest — and most pleasant — surprise of the movie. Her performance makes every scene she’s in memorable, and she has a knack for adding something extra to every line of dialogue or gesture she delivers that adds punch to the moment without going overboard. In a cast full of familiar faces and well-known veterans, Wright stands out in the crowd and will be a great addition to any future Marvel installments smart enough to include her.
As the film’s primary villains, Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis — who portray Killmonger and Ulysses Klaue, respectively — set similarly high bars with their performances.
Serkis makes full use of the long leash he’s granted for Klaue this time around, and results in a villain that’s as evil as he is funny. It’s the kind of performance that makes it more and more frustrating that we don’t see more of Serkis on-screen and outside of motion-capture roles, as Klaue could have likely been a bland, generic bad guy without Serkis’ insanely entertaining investment in the character.
With Killmonger, Jordan delivers a great counterpoint to Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa, and explores some surprisingly complicated themes with an impressive amount of depth in his performance. Jordan makes it easy to feel for his character one minute, only to turn the other way around in the next moment and leave the audience reeling. There’s a terrifying level of calmness and certainty of purpose in the way he enacts his plans, and Jordan clearly relishes playing a villain after a string of films that cast him in cheer-worthy protagonist roles.
The rest of Black Panther’s cast is finished with a variety of long-time actors, rising stars, and otherwise familiar faces that all play their roles well without a single weak performance among them. Whether it’s Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett portraying members of the Wakandan royalty or Lupita Nyong’o and Daniel Kaluuya as members of T’Challa’s inner circle, the characters in the film are put in capable hands and the their performances more than meet the trust placed in them.
If there’s one point in which Black Panther film falls a bit short, it’s an issue that has occasionally appeared in previous Marvel flicks: When it comes to action sequences that lean into CGI effects, Black Panther movie’s reach exceeds its grasp at times.
On more than one occasion, the action scenes in Black Panther veered a little too far into the computer-generated realm — especially in its climactic battle — so much so that it’s a bit frustrating, given how immersive the rest of the film can be. Although Black Panther is ostensibly an action movie, the characters feel more authentic in the film’s grounded, dialogue-driven moments than they do when jumping, flipping, and swinging around the environment.
Still, the flaws of Black Panther are fairly minor compared to the many things the film gets right — not the least of which is a surprisingly overt exploration of some complicated social and political issues. Marvel’s films aren’t exactly known for dealing with controversial subject matter (Civil War even managed to avoid diving too deep into the socio-political weeds the tale stemmed from), but Black Panther doesn’t shy away from challenging its viewers to consider the obligations of wealthy countries to the rest of the world, for instance, or whether one’s national identity supercedes one’s sense of social responsibility.
And yet somehow Black Panther film still manages to be an entertaining, incredible adventure in a brightly colored world full of heroes and villains.
It takes a deft touch to unfold the best of so many factors that make up a movie, and in doing so, avoid having the whole movie collapse under the weight of everything it serves its viewers. Black Panther is a testament to the talents of Coogler and the movie’s brilliant cast, who make it seem far too easy to make such an ambitious, unique flick.
Whether Black Panther film is ultimately regarded as one of Marvel’s greatest installments — either critically or commercially — is almost inconsequential by now. Coogler has produced a movie that transcends its genre and pushes the boundaries of what we can (and should) expect from the MCU, and the superhero film landscape as a whole is better for it.