Black Panther Review: Half James Bond, half The Lion King

Black Panther Review: Half James Bond, half The Lion King, complete with a blazing dash of Star Wars.

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Words can’t enough describe how crucial Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is at this stage of the comic book film genre. It’s not just our first solo film focusing entirely on a primarily-black cast populated with strong female characters.

It’s not just King T’Challa’s first quest, and our initial good look at the mystical African kingdom of Wakanda. It’s not just the final solo outing before Marvel’s massive Avengers: Infinity WarBlack Panther is all of those things, and so much more. Given the weight of the film’s release, many have wondered if Black Panther could fulfill its lofty promises. Luckily, despite some storytelling and technical shortcomings, the film is ultimately a flawed-yet-powerful look at international policy, racial politics, and familial obligations that hits the mark more often than it misses.

Happening soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War (the first Phase 3 movie isn’t required watching, but it definitely helps), Black Panther starts off on its titular hero (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to the hidden African nation of Wakanda after handing over Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) to the American government. Once returned home, he must take his late father’s place as the ruler, continue to protect his land under the mythical guise of Black Panther, reconsider Wakanda’s previous isolationist policies towards international conflict, and face a growing threat from Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American with an unusually-deep knowledge of Wakandan customs. Along the way, T’Challa kicks some serious ass and helps audiences meet a whole new nation and supporting cast that will perhaps become vital when Thanos (Josh Brolin) eventually strolls into town.

At its core, Black Panther continues to prove that Marvel movies work best when they bend genre and blend elements from other styles of film. In the case of this film, the story seems equal parts James Bond and The Lion King with a blazing dash of Star Wars thrown in for good measure. It sounds crazy, but when the film kicks into high-gear, you can plainly see how those qualities coalesce into something extraordinary.

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The issue is that the film takes quite a while to really find its place. Although the film is mostly self-contained from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting all of the pieces into place from the fallout of Captain America: Civil War takes time, and the first act feels like the slowest and the weakest portion of the film. Things get much better once the central story gets moving, but there’s a strong case to be made for the argument that Black Panther doesn’t handle the transition out of Civil War as well as Spider-Man: Homecoming, and that it would’ve been better as a straight origin movie.

With that said, Chadwick Boseman continues to prove that he was born to play Black Panther as he steps into the spotlight, but the supporting cast deserves acknowledgment here, as well. In the film, director Ryan Coogler has formed perhaps the best ensemble of characters ever seen in a Marvel film, with the relentlessly snarky Shuri (Letitia Wright), the dutifully-badass Okoye (Danai Gurira from  The Walking Dead), and the joyous campy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) all standing out as potential fan-favorites.

Marvel has long been criticized for using villains that don’t quite live up to the strengths of the heroes, but here the opposite is almost true. Killmonger is charming, brutal, intense, and intelligent in all of the ways that you want a bad guy to match an awesome hero like T’Challa. By now, props need to be given to Michael B. Jordan — who is easily the scene-stealer within the movie’s stacked cast. When all is said and done, he leaves little room for doubt that Killmonger will go down as one of the MCU’s best villains to date.

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Also, the strength of that whole ensemble suggests that some characters do, sooner or later, get left by the wayside. Personalities like Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ramonda (Angela Bassett) don’t get as much to do as the tale unfolds, and the hope stays high that they will be enabled to take on more prominent roles as Wakanda appears as a more vital part of the MCU.

Nonetheless, the colorfulness of the characters in Black Panther is matched only by the sheer awesomeness of the world itself. Ryan Coogler has done incredible things with the creation of the film’s settings, as he single-handedly balances grimmer and grittier urban environments (the chops he already established with Fruitvale Station and Creed) with the more incredible sets of Wakanda.

Between the wholesomely awe-inspiring technologies (mainly thanks to the nation’s vast Vibranium deposits), the sweeping African vistas, and the truly remarkable set design, Wakanda is arguably the most visually-impressive location ever seen in a Marvel movie — not to mention captivating, when we factor in Wakanda’s similarly-unique socio-political traditions and heritage that make it entirely distinct from any other comic book flick.

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Finally, perhaps the most substantial problem with Black Panther is the fact that its actual execution often fails to live up to the vision backing the film up. Make no mistake, this is an absolutely beautiful movie in most respects, but there are several sequences in which the computer-generated effects just don’t do the world of Wakanda justice. While the majority of the movie’s action (especially a single-take showdown in a casino) is fantastic, some of the scenes of T’Challa in the Panther suit look more like video game cut-scenes than scenes from a huge Hollywood blockbuster.

Beyond that, many of the fight scenes have that ragdoll weightlessness that sometimes bogs down CGI-heavy action sequences. Given the heavy-handed punches that director Ryan Coogler succeeded in delivering in Creed, this can become something of a disappointment. It’s not enough to ruin the film, but it serves as a constant reminder that the film industry still has a way to go if it wants its movies to live up to the lofty visions of their directors.

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of the MCU‘s most impressive, compelling, and thematically resonant movies to date. It’s also one of its most uneven, when all is said and done. Marvel Studio’s Phase 3 still has yet to churn out a single bad one. That being said, Black Panther‘s clunky first act, occasionally cumbersome cast size, and hit-or-miss visuals make this one of Phase 3’s most inconsistent installments to date.

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Black Panther Review: Half James Bond, half The Lion King
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