Black Panther has claws, and they dig deep

The latest Marvel movie is a stunning success


"Black Panther" is one of Marvel's most successful features to date, combining the classic action and special effects with a rich cultural backdrop.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

It’s tempting to settle for celebrating the fact that “Black Panther” exists at all. Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe accelerated the release of superhero movies, there was a solid selection of revered comic book movies featuring white heroes. Consequently, there have always been fewer movies with black heroes, and almost never as well received or fondly remembered. On timing alone, “Black Panther” is a milestone as the last solo live-action superhero movie to feature a hero of African descent, not counting “Hancock” from 2008 or “Blade: Trinity” from 2004. 

But more than that, Africa is felt everywhere in this movie — most of the major cast are people of color, the primary setting is in Africa and the film’s visual designs are inspired by African culture. It’s an impressive leap forward in African representation, and in a sense, the film merely being good might have been reason enough to celebrate. But discussion of the film must move past celebration, because “Black Panther” is far beyond good or representative; “Black Panther” is a fantastic superhero film, one that is not just of Africa but explicitly about Africans, as the film is heavily thematically invested in real-world racial dynamics and the historical plight of black people across the globe.

The film is primarily set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a technologically advanced utopia that has isolated itself in secret from the rest of the world for millennia. Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) serves Wakanda as the titular Black Panther, a ceremonial warrior with unique enhancements. Following the death of his father during the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa must don the mantle of king and all of the responsibilities it carries. Further complicating matters is the appearance of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a murderous man with a complicated past and eyes set on Wakanda. What follows is a dramatic conflict of royal strife that is far more reminiscent of a Shakespeare play than of any other superhero film, a strong central plot line around which all else is built.

Recurring minor Marvel villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) returns for a threatening but fun partner for Killmonger, T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is surprisingly charming as a technical assistant, and Wakandan general Okoye (Danai Gurira) draws out some of the more exotic elements. The cast is too broad to fully list in detail here, but it’s nuanced and varied enough that nobody feels redundant. Boseman gives a great performance that expertly crosses the gap between T’Challa’s clever, almost comfortable side as a hero and his more anxious but still stoic side as a king. But the strongest performance may be Jordan’s — however grandiose you imagine a villain named Killmonger to be, Jordan delivers, but at the same time he feels like the most human and emotionally powerful Marvel villain to date. Together, the cast form a distinctly African lens through which real-world racial disparities are viewed, and it is from this lens that the movie tackles issues of modern black identity and societal roles.

On the production side, the soundtrack is nothing short of electrifying, hopping from classic, dramatic orchestral sounds, to tribal drum beats, to pulse-pounding hip-hop tracks from acclaimed artist Kendrick Lamar. It’s a great soundtrack, and director Ryan Coogler uses it to its full potential, as scenes feel edited around the music to emphasize changes in perspective and mood. 

Visually, the film’s blend of sci-fi elements, African-inspired designs and a rich color palette forms a beautiful, Afrofuturistic world. And again, in the capable hands of Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the movie’s composition can be downright gorgeous. While some of the sci-fi elements are functionally similar to elements found in many other sci-fi films, the presentation is so unique that they feel fresh again. The one area where the visuals do falter in is the CGI. Especially towards the end where the movie’s use of CGI is heaviest, some of the animated textures seem very rubbery and some movements feel rather odd.

It wouldn’t be a superhero movie without some exciting action, and “Black Panther” certainly has a healthy portion of that. The film has a solid balance between sci-fi gadgetry and choreographed combat. Again, the presentation is very unique, but in the case of the action, the presentation may be something of a crutch to compensate for the fact that it’s not particularly great. It’s never bad, the choreography is fine, and the concepts for the various gadgets are cool, but it’s the one area of the film that could often be described as “typical for a Marvel movie.” Good but not particularly great, and ultimately not the best part of the film by far.

There are other minor nitpicks to make — the stakes may be a little hard to grasp during the third act, especially depending on how deep your knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes. But none of them can shake the film’s absurdly sturdy foundations or blemish its outstanding qualities. “Black Panther” is a wonderful superhero film and an achievement in Afrofuturistic fiction.

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