Ugh, I’ve been excited about this movie since the first time I set eyes on the trailer. It just looked so damn cool, something that the Marvel cinematic universe has been missing for a whole – Spiderman: Homecoming was fun in it’s earnest, Saturday-morning-cartoon goofiness, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was a po-faced half-success that seemed a little bogged down in it’s own mythos to really get going. But here, with the exceptionally talented Ryan Coogler at the helm and the criminally charming Chadwick Boseman at the heart, Black Panther looked like something that could restore some of the sheer cinematic joy of a great blockbuster to the Marvel universe.
And it does. Look, I’m no die-hard fan of comic book movies (there’s a reason our other writer is covering the MCU in the run-up to Infinity War), but Black Panther sidesteps all the dull beats of a normal origin story to delve into something different and new. Following Prince T’Challa of the hidden African nation of Wakanda after the unexpected murder of his father, it follows our leading man as he takes up the mantle of the Black Panther and must face down threat potentially fatal to both him and Wakanda from an unexpected source.
It’s Chadwick Boseman who really props up the centre of this movie; he’s a consummate leading man, all cool charisma, sly wit, and a self-contained confidence that echoes out all the way across the movie. With a supporting cast as strong as this one, I really expected him to get a little lost in the mix, but his strong, dominating performance in Civil War carries over here to create one of Marvel’s most appropriately regal and instantly convincing heroes. Steeped in tradition and heritage, T’Challa isn’t a wise-cracking Tony Stark or a self-deprecating Bruce Banner; he’s entirely his own thing, and it’s a refreshing change of pace for the MCU.
Not to put down that supporting cast, which is really where the meat of Black Panther’s success lies. Letitia Wright shines as his tech-savvy little sister, while Lupita Nyong’o is about as far from a damselled love interest as it’s possible to be – Danai Gurira, as Wakanda’s General Okoye, is commanding in all the right ways with a deft with that keeps her from becoming too po-faced, and is just (just) my favourite part of the film. From Michael B. Jordan’s contrarian Erik Killmonger to Daniel Kaluuya’s carefully contained W’Kabi to Andy Serkis scene-stealing Klaue, the real strength of the extended cast lies in the effort put in to making their motivations sensical and grounded in the reality the film acquaints us with. Everyone’s desicions make sense for the characters we’ve learned that they are, and that’s impressive given the sheer size of the cast we’re dealing with here. It’s hard to think of a superhero movie that has relied on an ensemble cast to this extent with this much success, but Black Panther makes it work, using the characterization to inform the exposition and vice versa (which, given the amount of character work and world-building it has to do, is a wise choice).
One of the most notable things about Black Panther is how distinct it feels from other MCU movies – there’s barely a reference to any of the other heroes, and it’s only really in post-credits scenes that the movie bothers much with the expanded universe as a whole. But I like that – the movie is a bold move for the MCU and for director Ryan Coogler, in terms of it’s arresting visual style (oh, those glorious one-take fight scenes – oh, those lavishly saturated shots of Wakanda), it’s outspoken politics, and the sheer scope of the story it’s trying to tell, and that boldness sets it apart from the rest of the often-formulaic Marvel universe. I would have hated it if this felt like another Iron Man movie, much the way that Civil War and, to some extent, Spiderman: Homecoming did. Instead of inching the wider Marvel cinematic universe story forward a few places, Black Panther sets out to solely tell the story of Wakanda and T’Challa instead, and honestly, that’s a hell of a lot more interesting to me. There’s nothing wrong with the MCU as a notion, but there’s always room in my mind for something that challenges and bucks at the boundaries of the franchise it finds itself in.
That’s not to say the film is perfect: the enormity of the story and the scope of the cast means that some subplots (most notably the conflict between W’Kabi and Okoye) end up feeling as though big chunks of them were left on the cutting room floor to make room for everything else, and the final collection of action scenes suffers from having to give everyone in the cast something to do. But those are minor complaints compared to what Black Panther does achieve. Yes, it’s imperfect, but it’s also a bold, ambitious fantasy movie that introduces us to a whole new world and cast of characters as well as telling a strong story in it’s own right, and for that, it’s hard to begrudge it some small imperfections. Go see it.
If you liked this review, please consider checking out the rest of our Marvel Cinematic Universe retrospective, and catching up on our Oscar Season reviews. You can also support us on Patreon for great rewards!