**Update 06/24/18: After rewatching the film a couple of separate times, I’ve found more than enough depth to the subtext to merit an adjusted score. Furthermore, after sampling some more of director Ryan Coogler’s work, I can certainly see the impact his style had on Black Panther‘s presentation, although it is still frustratingly muffled by that MCU sameness.**
As with all Marvel movies, I will be doing two separate ratings. One on my own scale, and one that ignores all of the flaws that are most likely irrelevant to serious fans.
Rant Review Rating: 8/10
At one point near the beginning of Black Panther, the protagonist’s sister says “Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.” In many ways, this encapsulates the purpose of the film at large. With this one line of dialogue, writer/director Ryan Coogler laid out in no uncertain terms his intention to put an abrupt end to the incredibly vast racial disparity in not just Marvel or superhero movies, but in Hollywood blockbusters at large, and it is on this level that Black Panther finds its greatest success.
The story centers around T’Challa, the prince and soon to be king of a fictional African country called Wakanda. The previous king, as we are kindly reminded in a flashback, died during the explosion at the UN in Captian America: Civil War. This being the case, it now falls to T’Challa to take the throne and lead Wakanda into the future.
Wakanda, to any outsider, looks to be a third world country. This is by design. Instead, it is a technologically advanced society, superior to any western country in both knowledge and force. This is owed to the fact that the nation is built upon a massive deposit of vibranium, a super strong metal that has a slew of uses but is mostly just deployed as a convenient umbrella explanation for all of the impossible gadgets we’re shown.
Once things actually kick into gear, the narrative proves to be one of the best Marvel has yet produced. There are a few effective twists, and the pacing is solid, but Black Panther’s greatest strength is its surprisingly nuanced social commentary. The conflict is as much ideological as it is physical, and by the end, you fully understand the motivation behind each opposing force.
T’Challa represents the idea that the best way to help an oppressed people is to have those with power use their advantage to help undo the mistakes of the past because they have the means that have been denied to so many. Humanitarian efforts, community outreach, refugee programs; these are the tools that he would use to change the world and level the playing field. He knows that the oppressed are strong and if the system can be made to work in their favor instead of constructed to keep them down, that they will thrive. It is his belief that peace will yield sweeter fruit than violence.
His opposition, the aggressively named Killmonger, represents the idea that the system should be town down in its entirety and rebuilt, but this time the previously oppressed will rule. He is a revolutionary and knows that his anger is justified. He wants revenge on the system that took everything from him, and he will stop at nothing to get it. He intends to arm the oppressed, not aid them.
It is worth digressing for a moment to mention that both Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan’s performances are quite excellent. In fact, most every performance gave the vast majority of characters a level of dimension that I hope to see replicated in future Marvel films. Jordan, in particular, stands out as quite possibly the single best villain seen yet in the MCU. He has honest motivations, a satisfying arc, and everything he does plays beautifully into the film’s broader themes. He isn’t just an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome; he is a person in pain, seething with anger, and for good reason.
In addition to the central social commentary, there are musings about the cost of cultural identity when becoming a less walled off nation and the arguments for and against giving shelter to refugees. None of this is on the level of, say, Get Out in terms of subtlety or graceful delivery (some of these ideas are essentially stated outright while others are more subdued), but for the sheer novelty and welcome freshness of seeing a Marvel movie actually tackling real issues, I am willing to overlook most of the heavy-handedness.
If anything holds Black Panther back from greatness, it’s that it adheres so stringently to the established Marvel formula. I cannot express enough my joy at seeing a film with so much to say and so much cultural value being given the platform afforded to this franchise, but the film is so structurally stale that it threatens to undermine its multitude of strengths.
Some awkward dialogue? Check. An unnecessary romantic subplot? Naturally. A serious moment subverted by a bad joke because that worked in Guardians so now it has to be in all of them? You betcha. A deus ex machina that helps our heroes in becoming victorious? Mhm. An exposition dump that comprises the first 20 minutes of the film? Absolutely! Characters that you thought were dead but aren’t after all? Of course! A pointlessly bloated and massive CGI heavy third act? Without a doubt. Characters with crippling daddy issues? Do you even need to ask?
Similarly, Black Panther continues the Marvel trend of completely burying the unique voices of talented filmmakers in favor of making films that look like they were constructed in a factory. There is nothing visually or stylistically differentiating the work of Ryan Coogler from the work of the Russo brothers from the work of Kenneth Branagh from the work of Taika Waititi except for the color palette in a few instances. These directors are incredibly different in terms of their approaches to filmmaking, but each one’s style is robbed of them when working under the Marvel studio system.
None of this makes Black Panther into a bad movie, per se. It’s just excruciatingly irritating to watch such an interesting, bold film being built on the rusty old bones of mediocre films that we’ve already seen at least seventeen times by now.
This is one of a select few Marvel movies that I would give a general recommendation, even to non-fans. There is enough substance to entertain audiences even without all of the CG and punching, and it is this depth that I will remember about Black Panther. Despite the fact that it is essentially a good movie presented in the seemingly mandatory style of a tired, repetitive franchise, I think about it fondly. The vast majority of what it sets out to do it accomplishes, and does so admirably.
If nothing else, I hope Marvel has learned that there is a place in Hollywood for stories that don’t shy away from dealing with difficult issues and that they begin allowing filmmakers like Ryan Coogler to tell these stories authentically. “Just because something functions doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.” Black Panther is a significant step forward on that path, but Marvel needs to be willing to keep pushing the envelope in terms of both the cultural value that holds Black Panther head and shoulders above the vast majority of the MCU, but also in the way that they tell those stories. If they can manage that, there may still be some life in this franchise yet.
Disney’s™ Marvel’s™ MCU™ Review Rating: 9/10
When stripping away all of the flaws inherent to the franchise and simply comparing Black Panther to the other films in its, it easily ranks as one of the best. Not only is the story engaging and the action snappy, but the added value of the more subtextual elements elevate above most if not all other entries.
Furthermore, even though previous movies are not necessarily required viewing to get the most out of the experience, the team did throw in some fun easter eggs for those that have seen them, including a titillating post-credits scene (as usual). There are recurring characters like Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue and Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross, both of whom are given plenty to do by the script. Serkis is particularly fun to watch, as he seems to have come completely unhinged for the role, reveling in his character’s insanity.
I would like to reiterate just how interesting Michael B. Jordan’s villain was in comparison to his predecessors. His character feels natural, and his arc is easily the most compelling element of the film at large.
Aside from the lack of infinity stones, I can see very little in Black Panther that will disappoint hardcore Marvel fans. There are a few solid story twists, a fair amount of heart, some of the most visceral action of the franchise, and as previously mentioned, a healthy dose of depth to the narrative. As far as the series goes, there is a strong argument to be made that Black Panther is the pinnacle, and will undoubtedly top many people’s lists.