Ever since Marvel Studios began their box office hot streak with 2008’s Iron Man, some so-called “serious” film fans and critics have lamented that these movies are nothing more than cinematic popcorn, devoid of any real substance. But that’s the last thing they’ll be able to say about Black Panther, which is not only the most serious Marvel movie to date, but the most socially-conscious and thought-provoking as well.
Having helped captured his father’s murderer in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa [Chadwick Bosman from Marshall] returns to his homeland of Wakanda to take his rightful place as both King and as the nation’s protector, Black Panther. It’s like if being elected President of the United States also meant you were Captain America.
Well, sort of. You see, thanks to a versatile metal called Vibranium — which you may remember from Avengers: Age Of Ultron — Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. Which makes the Black Panther’s suit kind of like the one Tony Stark made for Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming if Stark tossed in some mini Wolverine claws for good measure. Just don’t feel bad you didn’t know this; Wakanda is not just advanced, they’re also secretive, and keep their country and its accomplishments hidden from the rest of the world. Which plays into why some people in this movie are challenging T’Challa’s right to the throne.
But while there are elements of Black Panther than may remind you of other Marvel movies, Black Panther is a very different kind of superhero film. And not just because our hero spends his time fighting usurpers instead of criminals or aliens (though the fate of the world does rest in his hands), which makes this is more like a Shakespearean drama or Greek tragedy than an action flick.
No, it’s because Black Panther gives its usurpers to the throne a historical perspective for their motivations, one that ties into colonialism and how that has influenced race relations in America and around the world. More importantly, the film’s smart script by Joe Robert Cole [American Crime Story] and director Ryan Coogler [Creed] take this socially relevant plot seriously, and not just as a talking point to prompt a bunch of punching.
Or, to put it another way, it’s like if the reason Wonder Woman left her island paradise wasn’t to stop a war but to help women from being treated like second class citizens.
That isn’t to say that Black Panther is devoid of action. Quite the contrary; it has a car chase that rivals the one in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, while the climactic battle had me thinking Coogler is a big fan of The Lord Of The Rings movies. It’s just that this isn’t as driven by its action the way other Marvel movies have been.
Further helping to distinguish Black Panther from the weaker Marvel movies is in its humor. Where some Marvel movies have gone for cheap laughs (we’re looking at you, Guardians Of The Galaxy), the funny parts of Black Panther are more clever and situationally-based, closer to the first Avengers and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The same can also be said for the music in the movie — the songs, not the score — which are never used as a crutch (and yeah, we’re still looking at you, Guardians Of The Galaxy).
Black Panther also has a first-rate cast, one that has both gravitas and good comic timing. Not only is Bosman as effective here as was in Captain America: Civil War, but he has Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘s Forest Whitaker providing a steady hand as T’Challa’s uncle and advisor, Zuri; Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya as his BFF, W’Kabi; and Michael B. Jordan [Creed] as the enemy he needs.
Though the true stars of Black Panther are the ladies. As good as Bosman may be, he’s at his best when verbally sparring with his ex-girlfriend and current Wakandan spy Nakia [Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years A Slave], or his super smart sister, Shuri [Urban Hymn‘s Letitia Wright], who’s Wakanda’s answer to James Bond’s Q. He’s also upstaged in the action scenes by Danai Gurira, who’s as much a bad ass here as she is in The Walking Dead, while his regal stature pales compared to his mother, Ramonda, who’s played by the always commanding Angela Bassett.
In fact, the only real weak spot in the cast of Black Panther is Martin Freeman [The Hobbit], though only because his character, CIA agent Everett K. Ross, is largely unnecessary.
The other problem with Black Panther — though “problem” may be too strong of a word — is that this isn’t as effortlessly watchable as the best Marvel movies. While it never drags, it also doesn’t fly by the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the first Avengers, or Spider-Man: Homecoming do.
But as I said, these problems aren’t all that problematic. While Black Panther isn’t as much fun as some people might hope, and more serious than some might expect — and might make some people feel uncomfortable about things they, well, should feel uncomfortable about — it’s still a first-rate superhero movie. And a smart one, too.