You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.
So, I have been here trying to come up with a good opening line for a while now, so let’s just go with it. Black Panther is awesome. The question, of course, is if it’s straight up the best MCU movie top to bottom and I’m not interested in that fight because in order to have that argument you have to stake your position on whether or not seriousness makes a movie better than a movie that’s pure entertainment and I’m not going to go down that road. But it is the best in certain ways for sure. It’s easily the most serious of the MCU and the one most interested in wrestling with serious issues (though it’s worth noting that other MCU films have dealt with real world issues). The film is bold though in the way that it works in the statements that it wants to make without sacrificing the external traits of the comic book movie. It should be said that one of the ways in which Black Panther is decidedly not the best in the MCU is in the area of action, which isn’t staged all that well, particularly the final showdown between T’Challa & Killmonger, though the big battle on the plains is good and a car chase sequence earlier in the film is thrilling and compelling.
The cast is sort of across the board fantastic. Boseman is pitch perfect as T’Challa; he has to bring a royal attitude, but also feel relatable and vulnerable and he does both perfectly. Michael B. Jordan is predictably terrific as the villain, easily the best villain of any of the MCU films. Jordan shows us the terrifying side of Killmonger, but the script is interested in us understanding him and Jordan is able to give us those moments of humanity we need. Andy Serkis is a pure delight in his supporting role and it’s kudos to Coogler that he’s willing to shift Serkis right out of the movie when the story calls for it to happen; a lot of directors would have figured out some contrived way to keep him around, but Coogler’s loyalty is to the story and the ideas he’s dealing with. We must also once again reckon with the perfection that is Lupita Nyong’o; she’s perfect as she always is, nothing else needs to be said. Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira are wonderful and memorable as the live wire tech-nerd and the ferocious warrior respectively. Winston Duke & John Kani deserve mention for their brilliant work in roles with relatively little screen time; they both prove that the old cliché about “no small roles” is still true. The film is also beautifully designed from the environments to the truly wonderful costumes. This is also probably the best score for any of the MCU films; I tend to find nothing really memorable about the scores in these movies, but this one is a real knockout from the ethereal beauty of the Ancestral Plane scenes to the harsh and unsettling Killmonger music.
It’s certainly easy to turn any discussion of this movie into a discussion of social issues and the unwavering devotion to getting some complicated ideas, at least for a superhero movie, out there is key to the heart of the film. But it isn’t a didactic movie and I think the artistry of the weaving of the themes into the characters is what really makes the film work compellingly. The battle between isolation, aggression and charity (in the Biblical sense of the word) as the three ideas fighting for the soul of Wakanda is relevant enough to make the film occasionally incendiary. The film brings these ideas home through the characters and the emotions we feel. We understand the fear and the earned distrust that drives isolationism; we feel the temptation to the satisfaction of aggression to right unredressed wrongs; and as the film closes, we feel too the power of T’Challa’s journey toward a morality of service. It’s fascinating and interesting that the film focuses so much on the relationship between T’Challa and his father in the way that it does. Any movie like this would have much to say about fathers and sons and generational responsibility, but this film is complicated by the idea that T’Challa, and we along with him, is forced to face the failures of his father and, ultimately, reject what T’Chaka has stood for and tried to teach his son. The reckoning of the mistakes and failures of a man we’ve seen as noble and good-hearted is difficult and the film isn’t afraid to make it difficult. All in all, Black Panther is a perfectly crafted film, filled to the brim with compelling characters, great performances and a script that balances the demands of a summer blockbuster with the ideas of a film interested in challenging its audience in the way that it thinks, even as it delivers the thrills we’ve come to expect. What a breathtaking achievement. 4 stars.
tl;dr – perfectly crafted film features compelling characters, great performances and an incredibly smart script; both an entertaining blockbuster and a thoughtful exploration of racial issues. 4 stars.