Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther feels less like an installment in the Marvel franchise and more like a whole story unto itself. The movie hums along blissfully without mentions of infinity stones or hints to other threats to come at a later date. It concerns itself with the characters it has and the world it inhabits.
Black Panther behaves unlike any other Marvel movie; not it’s structure, but in it’s very behavior. As the movie opens up we hear a father talking to his son about the origins of Wakanda reminding us that stories like most things, are past down through the generations. Coogler allows the movie to amble along as if the entire story is being told by previous generations. In some ways it is.
T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father has died, making him the new King of Wakanda. There is an ocean of difference between being a Prince and a King and T’Challa is forced to swim that divide. Part of what Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole, does is take time to thoroughly build the world of Wakanda. I feel like I understand Coogler’s Wakanda much more than I do Asgard, Metropolis, Gotham City, or even Marvel’s version of New York.
We are allowed to witness royal ceremonies, which like all royal ceremonies, is part bureaucratic and partly just that, ceremonial. In order for T’Challa to become King he must fight the chosen warrior of the other tribes. Yet, when the time comes no tribe puts forth a warrior. But lest we think T’Challa’s reign would go smoothly, a challenger appears M’Baku (Winston Duke). Of course since the movie is called Black Panther and Boseman’s name and face is on the poster, we know who will win this fight.
What Coogler does though, is throughout all this, show us the personalities, and customs, of all involved. We see the loyal Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the advisor to the throne and keeper of traditions, and his love and loyalty to T’Challa. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s little sister, watches on in horror, wishing she could help her brother out in some way. Though her technological advancements and inventions have put Wakanda light years ahead of the rest of the world, she can do nothing to help him now. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his friend and right hand man, watches on, but we get the sense there are cracks in his devotion.
Black Panther isn’t about the Black Panther so much as it is about Wakanda. For much, if not all, of the second act, Boseman’s T’Challa is off-screen. His mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is forced to flee Wakanda with her daughter and T’Challa’s close friend and ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyongo). Nakia is Wakanda’s foremost expert on espionage and intelligence gathering; a spy and damn good one. Ramonda, Nakia, and Shuri are as much the stars of Black Panther as Boseman himself. I haven’t even mentioned T’Challa’s general Okoye (Danai Gurria) the fierce and loyal head of the Dora Milaje. The Dora Miljae are an all woman special forces that serve as T’Challa’s bodyguard.
Okoye has one of my favorite lines in the film. During a riveting car chase where she, Nakia, Shuri, and T’Challa, are chasing Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) his henchmen open fire on Okoye. “Guns? How primitive.” One of the many joys of Black Panther is how strictly adheres to its political themes and beliefs.
If Okoye had uttered the line about guns and then the climactic battle been a gun fight, Black Panther would feel cheap and hollow. It would be just another action movie from Marvel studios. But when the climatic battles does happen it is without guns, the climactic battle incidentally is one of the few battles that feels climatic.
Coogler and Cole have painstakingly shown us each character’s worldview so that we understand why they are fighting on the side they are on. The battle feels immediate because the fate of the world does not hinge in the balance…well, at least not in direct balance. Instead the tension comes from trusts betrayed, friendships shattered, and a country torn asunder by a power mad tyrant N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan).
Jordan’s N’Jadaka is a tragic mirror of Boseman’s T’Challa. Both charismatic and driven are haunted by the ghost of their father. N’Jadaka pushes T’Challa to being a hero. Up until this point, T’Challa’s Black Panther has largely been a force for Wakanda. But N’Jadaka argues he should be a force and a champion of black people all around the world, not just Wakanda.
Jordan is mesmerizing as the angry, revenge driven man poisoned by the horrors of his oppressors. N’Jadaka is a searing antidote to the chronic weak villains that plague superhero movies. He is magnetic and fun to watch, but his goal is easily understood. His actions make sense and his arc tragic and moving. His last line is perfect melding of character complexity and thematic meditations that have been running through the whole film.
But the script is clever in that it has Nakia purporting the same world view minus the conquering. She too has seen the hurt and oppression others like her have endured. She pushes T’Challa to allow Wakanda to step out onto the world stage and present its true face. To be a beacon of hope to a faltering world. T’Challa is against both these notions, steeped in his father’s ideas and traditions. Coogler and Coe show us a T’Challa forced to reconcile his father’s vision of Wakanda with his own. Rarely do we see a hero forced to confront his own ideas as opposed to his own actions.
Black Panther is a sumptuous film to both look and listen to. The movie, shot by Rachel Morrison (who also shot Dee Rees’s Mudbound) is bathed in warm earth tones and sumptuous back lighting. Morrison and Coogler present Black Panther as a regal science fiction. Morrison and Coogler gives us a breathtaking Wakanda utilizing patterns and color in varying ways because different tribes have different tastes and cultures. They give us a complete universe to which to explore.
The soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar is a breath of fresh air in a genre whose music is forgettable and stale. The music drives Black Panther. It never overwhelms the action or the drama but always compliments it in a way that is never expected. The soundtrack and score add a startling layer of unpredictability in film designed by it’s studio not to be.
Much like Logan, or Wonder Woman, Black Panther shows us a new way of making franchise blockbusters. It has raised the bar. Ryan Coogler has made not just a deeply personal and political big budget comic book movie; he’s also crafted a deeply resonant and thematically complex character exploration. Black Panther is great. It’s not good, or so so, but great.