Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is an MCU film that actually has something to discuss and say about the reality of our world, and still manages to have some sci-fi/comic book fun along the way.
Picking up not too long after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa is coming back to Wakanda to be officially made King. After recruiting his estranged lover, Nakia, to come back to represent her tribe for the royal ceremony, T’Challa, his general Okoye, and Nakia head out to try and bring Wakanda’s most notorious criminal, Klaue, to justice after almost 25 years. What they don’t know is Klaue has a new accomplice, Erik Stevens, who hopes to get to Wakanda and, they are entangled with CIA Agent Ross who was trying to bring down the Winter Soldier in Civil War.
The plot sounds a bit convoluted when you write it out like that, but the plot isn’t really what Black Panther is all about. The story of royalty being challenged on the throne is tried and true, with Ryan Coogler executing this element of the tale perfectly, but the real strength and story of the film is the social commentary it serves out across the film The film pays more than lip service to the social consequences of black people across our country and the world, reflecting on the consequences of fatherless youths, the internal battles of how to fight back against their race’s oppression, or how powerful it can be to have cultural leaders to look up to; among many other things. Coogler uses this massive piece of entertainment to push this discussion deeper into the public light, all while creating a hero for children, and adults, to look up to that is a strong, powerful, fair, kind, loyal and funny persona anyone could strive to be more like. Coogler’s balance of social messaging and broad appealing entertainment is deftly handled here, which shows why he is one of our great young directors only three films in.
Beyond the social consciousness of the film, Coogler rounds together an excellent cast and gives them a great script to play around in. The film starts as a spy film meets a royalty drama, and then really gets Skyfall’y when it heads to South Korea, before getting to the crux of its drama and finally pivoting into full comic book territory for the finale. Coogler laces in laughs, tons of cool tech, and some inventive set pieces along the way, but I can’t say this film is taking the action title for the MCU anytime soon. It does have a couple of great moment action beats and moments, but I think I could just watch the “Q” esque hijinks of Shuri for hours. Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, steals every scene she is in, as the brains behind Wakanda’s tech and T’Challa’s younger sister. She is hilarious and gets most of the film’s best laughs too. She is a future star of the MCU.
Chadwick Boseman continues to play T’Challa with a regality that is, obviously, needed for the role, but he really inhabits everything the character stands for. He is the film’s straight man, outside a couple of jokes and that million dollar smile, as everyone around him gets to chew the scenery and have a lot of fun. Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, and she is alive and having fun in this role from the moment she shows up on screen. Having even more fun is Danai Gurira as Okoye, who balances being a badass, a loyal soldier and great friend to T’Challa with ease. Daniel Kaluuya and Forest Whitaker are both solid in their roles, but they are also the most under written. Winston Duke is great in his few scenes that he gets, and the same goes for Angela Bassett. Andy Serkis comes in and just devours the scenery, while Martin Freeman does a great job of expanding Agent Ross into being something more than just a government lackey.
Lastly, Michael B. Jordan and Sterling K. Brown deserve shoutouts for really transcending their roles and creating complex and tragic characters that have every right to feel the way they do, while also taking things further than they should. Jordan is also just so fun to watch, carrying the cockiness, the anger and the pain of Erik in every scene, all while having a swagger and cockiness that just pours through the screen. He also builds the tragedy of his role so perfectly, that I was brought to near tears when he gets to have another moment with his past that sent him down his path.
Minor nitpicks aside (the CG costumes just don’t work and a couple of characters pivot a bit too easily), Black Panther should be hailed as a triumph for the MCU and blockbuster entertainment. Socially conscious and very well made, this is what we should expect from our big budget entertainment. The MCU hallmarks are still all over this film, but Coogler pushes Black Panther beyond them, and is a resounding culmination of a build up across Phase 3 that the Marvel franchise could lead to some really engaging filmmaking beyond being fun action movies in a post Infinity Stone world.