There’s a moment early in “Black Panther” where T’Challa’s(Chadwick Boseman) resourceful sister (Letitia Wright) playfully tells him, “Just because it works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved on.” This line is clearly a message to those who have become critical of the now predictable MCU Formula. Even though each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to rack in cash hand over fist, Kevin Feige and company are not becoming complacent. “Black Panther” is proof that they are taking steps to improve on their tried and true formula.
What’s most important about this film is what sets it apart from all the other superhero-flicks flooding theatres this decade. The first is the absolutely amazing production design. Every Marvel film has been exceptional in this area but “Black Panther” takes it to another level. The detail, creativity and cultural depth of this fictional world are jaw-dropping. Building and vehicles are details inside out with runes, glowing tech, and glossy surfaces, but then accented with beautiful pieces of wood, perfectly representing the Wakandan’s respect for both future and past.
This theme of identity forged between opposing eras is weaved through the entire narrative which further strengthens the film. T’Challa has just lost his father, the previous king, and Black Panther. Although he greatly respected his father, their ideology on if and how Wakanda’s should help the outside world differed greatly. Without getting on any soapboxes, the movie is able to examine a number of timely themes. If you have the ability to help others, should you? Can your own culture be weakened by accepting refugees into your land? Should you only help your own kind? Where is the line that separates justice from vengeance over past deeds?
The film also skewers another current concern, the lack of diversity and strong female characters. No, Black Panther is not the first black superhero put to celluloid, but never before have we had a film centered so strongly on African Heritage. It’s particularly jarring when the film conjures memories of “The Lion King”(1994). Both films deal with the death of a king, the prince coming into power against challenges to the throne’s rightful heir. But in contrast, “The Lion King” is shockingly whitewashed and almost completely lacking in cultural understanding. There’s a touch of irony in Martin Freeman’s character “Everett Ross” being included in the plot. He’s a great actor, and always a joy to watch, but in retrospect, he has zero impact on the story except as a conduit of exposition. You could say he’s the token white character!
To delve further into the plot of this film would be a disservice as a large part of the enjoyment is seeing the story unfold. Rest assured, it’s certainly one of the most thoughtful scripts in the MCU to date. The entire cast is brilliant in their performances as well. Much has been said of Michael B. Jordan’s villainous turn as “Killmonger” but he doesn’t shine as much as one would expect. This isn’t to say his performance isn’t excellent, but that everyone is in this movie. Chadwick Boseman has depth and emotional range that we might not expect but desperately need in this character. Danai Gurira’s royal guard “Okoye” takes her intense smoldering and physicality to a level that’s only been hinted at in “Michonne” on “The Walking Dead” Although not the strongest performance of the group, Letitia Wright’s “Shuri” is perhaps the most enjoyable character in the cast. She’s extremely intelligent, has a large responsibility in the royal family, but still lovingly teases her brother T’Challa any chance she has. Their moments together are instantly endearing.
Perhaps the only fault this film has occasional inconsistency. There is a change in tone halfway through, although it’s quite likely it was an intentional choice by writer/director Ryan Coogler. He’s mentioned in various interviews that “James Bond” and the “Godfather” were large influences in creating this movie. The first half is very much a Bond film, hitting all the appropriate tropes right on cue, including a brilliant sequence in a foreign casino that is clearly a nod to “Skyfall” Unfortunately for the 007 fan inside of me, the second half completely abandons this inspiration and becomes something very different. It’s a choice that I’m still wrestling with, as narratively it works quite well. The story becomes much more personal, more familiar, and the shift in tone does serve the conclusion well. The CGI also suffers from inconsistency, with some green screen FX and digital-doubles looking like they were taken from a DC film instead. With so much of the CGI looking as good as it does, these dips into the sub-par are quite noticeable although perhaps more forgivable.
The MCU still has a ways to go in revamping their winning formula, but “Black Panther” is a fun, refreshing, step in the right direction.