I’ll admit I’ve had a difficult relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past few years. Sometimes it’s a matter of quality, and sometimes it’s simply a lack of access. We are now in what is referred to as “Phase Three” of the MCU, and I confess I haven’t seen half the films in it, because once you miss out on one, you’re basically hamstrung thanks to the Gordian Knot of sequels, prequels, origin stories, and crossovers.
As such, most of the time I’m limited to the introductory or stand-alone stories when I see a comic book movie of any kind, not just Marvel. If I can get in on the ground floor, and then if I enjoy it, then I can invest in sequels, but even that’s no guarantee. Sometimes the money’s just not there to see yet another movie. Sometimes Netflix brings in a sequel but not the original for context. Sometimes they just get lost in the shuffle when there’s other stuff I want to see. So yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Deadpool, I’ve seen all those. And now I’ve seen Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the first truly great film of 2018. And since the title character is apparently in Captain America 3 and the upcoming Infinity War, I suppose I’ll have to follow up on my Oscar blitz with a marathon of the MCU films I haven’t seen before the next one comes out.
This film, like all superhero films, succumbs at times to the trappings of the genre. There are some extreme logical leaps you have to make here and there (particularly when it comes to T’Challa being betrayed by a lifelong friend for simply failing in his first attempt to accomplish something his father couldn’t do in his 30-year reign). Some of the CGI works (Ancestral Plain, ash effects in the lab) and some of it is laughably lame (giant armored rhinos). There’s way too much product placement (if I see another Lexus ad I’m going to scream). Gratuitous Stan Lee cameo is gratuitous. Some of the action and character fates lack pathos, knowing the film’s role in the larger universe. Stuff like that.
But all that said, this film was spectacular. Like Deadpool a couple years ago, part of what makes this film so good is its own self-awareness. It’s not so tongue-in-cheek (and really it couldn’t be with a PG-13 rating – hell they sanitized the trailer for Red Sparrow by painting over Jennifer Lawrence’s partially-exposed cleavage in a bathing suit for God’s sake), but there are great moments of subverting cliche with humor. I think my favorite was late in the film, where a somewhat cheesy emotional reunion is immediately undercut by Winston Duke’s M’Baku sighing, “You done yet?”
The film really hits a lot of strong notes for the genre. The action sequences are expertly choreographed, walking the line between grand combat and campy bullshit with surgical precision. The story toys with expectations by having some predictable scenarios while also casually disposing of one of the villains halfway through without a second thought.
And of course, the cast is really strong. Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, aka the nigh-invincible Black Panther. Lupita Nyong’o is his spy and love interest Nakia. Michael B. Jordan is an exceptional villain, as is Andy Serkis, getting to play someone outside a motion capture suit for once. Martin Freeman makes his mark on yet another billion-dollar franchise. Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Sterling K. Brown all turn in decent supporting performances. Finally, there’s Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister and way cuter version of Tony Stark, Shuri. She’s an absolute delight from beginning to end, injecting a lot of the fun into the more serious proceedings. I have no shame in admitting she’ll probably be added to my celebrity crush list.
Where the film really succeeds, though, is with its marvelously ambitious social commentary. The modern MCU has been going on since 2008, and in the decade since, the loyal audience has grown up. They’ve seen the world around them advance and regress on the whims of governments and what could only be charitably called “leaders” in some cases. More importantly, the diverse audience is finally seeing something akin to themselves on screen, and the film makes sure to use its platform to send a positive and affirming message.
More often than not, the messaging is not subtle. In a mid-credits scene, T’Challa comes right out and challenges the branding of America’s current administration: “Wise men build bridges, while fools put up barriers.” Can you hear Trump bitching about his wall from inside the theatre? The entire concept of the nation of Wakanda is an experiment in combating tribalism at its most basic level.
Even when the film isn’t outright speaking to the audience, it’s challenging stereotypes, daring you to default to cliche. The one outlier tribe in Wakanda literally worships gorillas and howls like them. The head of the king’s elite all-female guard literally chucks spears and complains about her weave. You can’t denigrate someone when they’re already willing to make the joke for you. Instead, you have to examine for yourself why you’re laughing, and that alone is a profound step forward. When the movie was over, I left the auditorium thinking about Wonder Woman, and why it is that between that film and this one, the most positive superhero role models had to have divine powers and came from lands that don’t exist. Why can’t everyday people make the necessary changes to make these utopian figures the norm?
It should go without saying that I recommend this film. I momentarily considered not even posting a review here, because it took me three days to see this, and even then I got one of the last seats at my chosen showtime, in the very front row. Clearly, given all the pre-release sales and the record-breaking box office returns, people were going to pay to see this no matter what, so what does my recommendation matter?
Still, this was a thoroughly enjoyable film the entire way through. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so. Maybe wait a week so you can be in a less crowded auditorium, but definitely see it. There are some amazing visuals and costuming, the story threads get paid off beautifully, the action is first rate, and the acting is superb. And more importantly, Black Panther shows that the MCU is growing up with its audience, and it’s ready to usher the next generation into a better world.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What’s your favorite Marvel movie? How was your experience seeing this film? How cool was it to see Andy Serkis as a human and why didn’t he fight Martin Freeman for the One Ring? Let me know!