There are some films where you can practically hear the history books writing themselves – though if all history books were as outrageously fun as Black Panther, university campuses would be bursting at the seams. Accompanying 2017’s Wonder Woman as a triumphant one-two punch of unprecedented blockbuster representation finding record-breaking box office and critical success, Black Panther’s real shock is that… yes, it is exactly as good as you’d hope. A robust, whip-smart, emotional, and superbly entertaining thriller as unafraid to dive headlong into contentiously topical politics as unabashedly indulge in superhero silliness. Some things are worth the wait.
And yet, after a dizzyingly gorgeous animated prologue, establishing the MacGuffin mythology of fictional African technology haven Wakanda, we wait even longer, as director Ryan Coogler deviates into a seemingly tangential Prologue 2.0 set in the slums of Oakland, California. It’s a disorienting start (but don’t worry; it’s only moments more before T’Challa spin-kicks someone), but its coy foreshadowing heralds an important lesson: Coogler is an immaculately precise director unaccustomed to wasting a frame of film. No one could accuse Black Panther of being unambitious, with a plot encompassing human trafficking, international arms deals, salient commentaries on tradition vs. modernity, redefining power amidst a global economy, and roughly as many political maneuvers as an entire season of House of Cards (including brazen, poignantly tongue-in-cheek barbs about immigration and colonial history) – as well as, y’know, fight scenes, cool gadgets, and all that other superhero stuff. The seamlessness with which Coogler weaves together each seemingly disparate plot thread and theme is almost mind-boggling – and yet, his film is as much a cohesive entity as it is more than the sum of its parts.
Appropriately, for a superhero film whose production was inevitably delayed for decades due to its affiliation with a revolutionary political party, social politics comprise the core and foundation of Black Panther. Here, Coogler pulls no punches, but is never pedantic. We start out in fun but familiar territory, with a first act globetrotting takedown of Wakanda’s arch-nemesis Ulysses Klaue (a gleefully scenery-masticating Andy Serkis, arguably Marvel’s most downright fun adversary to date), reminiscent of a contemporary 007 romp (complete with T’Challa’s own ‘Q,’ in Letitia Wright’s hysterical, impossibly delightful Shuri). But, right when we begin to settle in and munch our popcorn, Coogler yanks the rug out from us, with a second act tonal shift that flips the film on its head, to the point where more than a few audience members will be left questioning the ethics and legitimacy of the hero we’ve spent the entire first half admiring as infallible. Enter Michael B. Jordan, who not only energizes the film with a furious surge of passion as he shifts from his early performative swagger to magnetic, fiery dogmatism, but shifts the conflict to a ‘Malcolm X vs. MLK’ critique of Wakanda’s isolationist inertia in the face of contemporary racism and post-colonialism. It’s a shockingly bold move for the normally sociopolitically safe Marvel, but it pays off, making the brewing climax not only breathtakingly tense, but an impressively nuanced conversation on ethics, empathy, and the real impact of a contemporary revolution. You won’t find that in Ant-Man.
Nonetheless, Coogler has his priorities straight, and Black Panther balances its political core with a raucously fun comic book ride. Aesthetically, it’s a triumph – the FX, art, and costume design are flooring in their imaginative intricacy, incorporating Tony Stark calibre technology into traditional African designs and costuming (force field cloaks?! cool!), lending itself to a pragmatic sci-fi futurism unlike quite anything we’ve ever seen in the movies before, while the pastel hues of the ‘spirit world’ are jaw-dropping in their beauty. The fight scenes are thrillingly fun, balletic as they are brutal (and while T’Challa’s new suit, and its explosive release of kinetic energy, adds a fun new level to the customary punching, kicking, and clawing, it’s in the hands, spear, and wig of Danai Gurira’s scene-stealing, steely general Okoye, that the film is at its most fun and thrilling), and Ludwig Gorasson’s musical score, layering traditional African chanting and instrumentation into brassy superhero swells, is addictively sumptuous. There are occasional fumbles – Coogler’s pace occasionally lags and sputters, with a more meditative second act verging on the lugubrious (and a couple of “Remember who you aaaaaaaaare” heart-to-hearts with John Kani’s deceased patriarch that can’t help but have their gravitas undercut by snickering comparisons to The Lion King). Still, Coogler sinks it home with furious aplomb, steering (just) clear of conventional Marvel third act ennui with a ‘kitchen sink’ climax so furiously tense and bonkers (two words: WEAPONIZED. RHINOS.) that all cinema armrests will be marked with the claw marks of being gripped by a captivated audience.
As the titular monarch, Chadwick Boseman delivers a remarkably grounded performance. Steering the film with a regal calm undercut with muscular emotion and crucially accessible doubt, the film revolves around his steady, magnetic presence, as the showier, scene-stealing bits are commanded by the trio of powerful women supporting him (the perfection of Wright, Gurira, and the luminous, passionately charismatic Lupita Nyong’o). Martin Freeman’s befuddled fed provides ‘fish out of water’ access to Wakanda with customary dry wit; he’s fun without overstaying. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett all elevate one-dimensional secondary characters with gravitas and class, while Winston Duke’s M’Baku is so ferociously terrifying mitigated by some of the most precise comedic timing seen in years, he damn near strolls off with the film himself.
A staggering accomplishment as fun as it is masterfully thoughtful, Black Panther may not quite settle into The Dark Knight territory of genre-transcending masterpiece, but it pounces proudly at its footsteps, this decade’s ‘thinking audience’s blockbuster with a conscience’ to beat. Soak in the well-deserved fun, and let the BET’s 2010 cartoon theme triumphantly play me out: “Black Pan-ther! Black Pan-ther!”
4 out of 5 stars