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(This Review contains spoilers.)
Clocking in as the 18th Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to date, Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman might make some moviegoers wonder that in a series this widespread and ongoing, how could the magic still be there? I feel that the key to Marvel’s success is in offering what you expect in a superhero movie: amazing visuals, great characters, thrilling action and storylines, but also something unexpected.
Each of Marvel’s huge successes takes the standard superhero story and merges it with another genre or style: Captain America was a World War 2 superhero film, its sequel was a spy/espionage-flavored hero flick, Spider-Man: Homecoming was a teen coming-of-age story with superheroics, Ant Man was a goofy heist comedy with heroics, Thor and Dr.Strange are fantasy mixed with the superhero mantle, etc. It gives each of the characters their own vibe, flavor, and niche they represent, and this even extends to the Netflix material. You never feel like you’re watching more of the same even though the MCU and related material now spans hundreds of hours of content.
Black Panther carries on the this tradition by merging the superhero genre with a royalty-themed drama. Michael B. Jordan who plays the film’s main villain, called it “Marvel’s Game of Thrones” in an interview, and you can see why after watching. Black Panther also has themes of how to balance power on a worldwide scale, and how national superpowers can interact with other countries, if they should at all.
If that all sounds like maybe it’s not quite what you expected, or maybe a bit too political and not action packed enough, do a 180 and think again: Black Panther has all that great content packed up with absolutely beautiful visuals and kick ass action that bring the fictional nation of Wakanda to life.
Unlike something like Spider-Man or Daredevil, most of Black Panther’s stories don’t take place in anything close to modern American/first world life, so on top of introducing characters, crafting a story, and bringing it to a balanced and satisfying conclusion, the movie also had to introduce non-comic reading (the majority) audiences with what kind of nation Wakanda is, its history and culture, and what makes it so powerful. The movie manages to give you all this information on how Wakanda figures into the rest of the MCU and why we’re only just now hearing about them in the story (although there were little hints at it earlier, aside from Age of Ultron, watch Iron Man 2 again!), and make that not just background information about the movie’s setting, but an important part of the plot. T’Challa has to decide whether to keep Wakanda and it’s technological marvels hidden from the rest of the world, or use his power and influence to help other countries in need, even if it risks invasion.
Marvel fans saw accomplished stage and film actor Chadwick Boseman play Prince T’Challa before in the excellent Civil War, so we already knew going in even from that performance that he’d deliver bigtime, and you get more of the same measured, wise, skilled, but occasionally fun-loving character we already saw. Helping him out is a great supporting cast including Danai Gurira (popular from The Walking Dead) as General Okoye, Forest Whitaker as royal advisor Zuri, a hilarious, smart mouthed and trolling-heavy performance from Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, and Golem performer Andy Serkis as the villainous arms dealer Klaw, and Michael B. Jordan as the villainous Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, amongst other great cast members that contribute to a story that brings the classic Black Panther stories written by Jack Kirby, Christopher Priest, and others to life. You could tell all of the cast and crew had passion for the project and wanted to deliver something memorable.
Speaking of the cast and story, it’s the story of the villain, Killmonger, that really made this stand out for me. I was already excited and aboard the hype-train for sure, but was prepared for reality in case the movie let me down. Marvel has been criticized for its villains before, and how they don’t measure up to other great film villains, but in several past installments, we’ve had villains with strong motivations, and between Vulture and Killmonger, we’ve seen some of this decade’s best villains in comic book movies yet. Some critics are even going so far to say that Killmonger is on the level of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and I have to say, his character nearly steals the movie with his well constructed backstory and well-developed motivations. Before he does something particularly heinous, you might even find yourself almost rooting for him after you find out why he’s doing what he’s doing.
The soundtrack to the film also has its own identity, with typical orchestral instruments being swapped out for African influenced instruments that were studied and recorded in their home environment by Ludwig Goranson, the composer. Royal trumpets and pounding drums accompany T’Challa when he starts laying down the might of the Panther on fools, a sharp female-led chant backs up General Okoye when she starts flinging her spear, and whenever Killmonger shows up, due to his American upbringing, you get a threatening, pounding orchestral hip-hop beat that is in my opinion good enough to be sampled by a major artist (speaking of major artists, Kendrick Lamar’s original tracks he contributes to the soundtrack also help jazz up a few sequences and the end credits).
Along the same line, the costumes and design of Wakanda transport you to a world as rich as any fantasy movie, or any of the other incredible locations in the now wide Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With stunning visuals, fantastic action, and an ending that really makes you understand what T’Challa is about and what sets him and Wakanda apart from other superhero material, I think Black Panther is towards the top of MCU films. The one major criticism I can give it is going to be a spoiler, so please, if you haven’t seen it yet, consider the review done, and go enjoy the movie. If not, scroll lower, and read my comments.
The one change I would’ve made to Black Panther would be to save both of its main villains for future installments, much in the same way Loki from the Thor films has crossed over into other properties and hung around for a while now in the MCU, or how Wilson Fisk is still a factor in the Netflix shows.
Marvel has to acknowledge its good villain problem, and they did too good of a job crafting Killmonger, and to a lesser extent Klaw, who was still funny and interesting as well, to just kill them both off in their first outing. Killmonger uses Klaw’s body as a token to enter Wakanda, but what if he faked his death and then revived Klaw, forcing Panther to fight them both in the end? That might’ve been interesting, and then have them both jailed to see justice for their crimes, so that they can be used in the series again. Both of them, but especially Killmonger, are such rich characters that it almost felt like a shame to cut them out of the franchise so soon. But that’s how it goes, and as is, their deaths serve the story and are memorable.
As a bonus, be on the lookout for Las Vegas star and Play Legit crew member Mo Chocolate in the scene where T’Challa battles for the right to the crown in the center of the extras wearing a white robe! Congrats Mo!
For being an excellent trip to Wakanda and showing what makes the hero who he is, I give Black Panther 4.5 MFs out of 5.