Movie Review: ‘Black Panther’ is Marvel’s Strongest Film to Date

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Of the now eighteen movies in the Marvel cinematic universe, “Black Panther” might be one of the few that can be called truly great. It’s got all the visual imagination and pop-flare you want from one of these comic-book properties but also the brains to imagine how it’s characters and the fictional landscape at the center affect the larger world around them.

The fact the movie also doesn’t crumble under the weight of fan expectations and cultural importance is a small miracle unto itself. “Black Panther” isn’t the first film to place a black superhero front and center but it certainly marks a milestone in terms of the representation of black culture in American blockbusters, as well as the opportunity for filmmakers of any color except white to funnel their vision into a movie of this scale.

In this case, the filmmaker in question was lucky enough to be Ryan Coogler. The 31-year-old Oakland native emerged as a filmmaker to watch with his indie-debut “Fruitvale Station” in 2013, followed by his “Rocky” sequel “Creed”, which proved he had the skill and vision to make uniquely personal blockbusters. If anyone was going to make a superhero movie that truly stood out, it was him.

To my mind, there are two things that make Coogler’s movies so enduring; a sense of place and depth in characters. “Fruitvale Station” is distinctly set in Coogler’s home-town of Oakland, while “Creed” immerses itself in the cityscape of Philadelphia. Coogler applies that same level of detail in bringing the fictional African nation of Wakanda to life. “Black Panther” is the rare Marvel movie where you feel the location has a sense of history, culture, and traditions.

Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, have also taken great care in exploring how Wakanda’s isolation and rich technology impacts its relation to the larger world. One of the rippling issues through the movie is whether or not the African nation shares is technological wealth with the outside world or remain hidden in secrecy. This debate only becomes further fascinating when one takes into account that the nation resides at the center of the poorest continent on earth.

Yet, the film’s detailed setting also extends to its visuals. It’s an afro-future paradise where state-of-the-art technology is organically woven in with traditional African clothing, architecture, and weapons. From a production standpoint, “Black Panther” breathtakingly imaginative.

However, Coogler’s greatest contribution comes in the movie’s rich characters. “Black Panther” boasts one of the most talented casts of any Marvel movie and thankfully gives even its supporting characters plenty to do. Many viewers likely already knew how perfectly cast Chadwick Boseman was as the title character, due to his appearance in “Captain America: Civil War”. However, here he gets much more depth to play with, struggling with a sense of doubt about the responsibilities of ruling a nation.

By Boseman’s side are Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), Letitia Wright (“Black Mirror”) and Academy-Award-Winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) as three of the richest female characters the franchise has offered thus far. Gurira acts as the leader of the Dora Milaje, a group of “Grace Jones looking chicks”, as they’re once referred to, who act as the personal guard for the king. Wright plays Boseman’s younger sister, who acts as the “Q” for this fictional world; designing tech for her brother that would make even Tony Stark jealous. However, the most exciting of these three women might be Nyong’o, who plays Boseman’s feisty warrior love-interest.

Nyong’o is the kind of young talent who could probably hold down a blockbuster this size by herself. However, she’s been largely underused in American movies since her Oscar win four years ago. Sure, she got to play a character in “Star Wars” that was essentially a talking tangerine but here she gets to truly show off her star-power and charisma.

Most action movies wouldn’t take the time to make these female characters feel alive and human, let alone be apart of the action. However, “Black Panther” puts them front and center alongside its title character. Other members of the cast include Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya, and an entertainingly over-the-top Andy Serkis.

However, the “Black Panther’s most surprising character might its villain, played by a scene-stealing Michael B. Jordan. Coogler has worked with the young actor before on his previous two films and here the two craft arguably the best villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever delivered. A continuing problem with many of Marvel’s films has been continuously lackluster villains that a rather one-note. Even Loki, probably the only other villain in the franchise worth remembering, had rather flat motivations for his deviant behavior.

Jordan’s Killmonger rings closer to someone like Magneto in “X-Men” or Kylo Ren in “Star Wars” as a uniquely complex villain for modern-day blockbusters; one whose motivations aren’t necessarily wrong but, when filtered through feelings of rage and betrayal, become deadly. Part of that rage stems from a feeling that, through its isolationism, Wakanda has largely turned its back on those of African descent in the outside world, who over the course of history have been subjected to slavery, colonialism, and poverty, all while the advanced nation continued to flourish. Jordan’s character sees his actions as a way to re-write the wrongs of history but does so through bloodshed.

Most blockbusters wouldn’t tread into those waters. Yet, the Coogler and his team take the film’s cultural weight as a challenge to create a popcorn extravaganza with a surprising amount of meat to it. “Black Panther” feels like an exploration of a comic-book world that dares to explore the complicated ripple effects its characters and setting have on the larger world. All of that makes the movie Marvel’s most satisfying film to date.

RATING:  ★ ★ 1/2