Marvel Studios is usually not one for making statements on politics or current cultural stigmas. They, like other big money studios, are here to allow us to escape from those real-world problems for 2 hours or so. That for me, unlike some critics, is not something worth groaning over but is worthy of praise. For those critics who want more societal reflection in these blockbuster epics though, Ryan Coogler has crafted a film that doesn’t follow the standard production line style of Marvel. Sure there's the post-credit scenes, the quick-witted moments, and the abundance of action to suit the formula, but the story isn’t there just to introduce the Marvel audience to the character of “Black Panther.” The story is filled with both message and purpose. Providing another reason to go check out Marvel’s newest hit, if you weren’t already on board like the rest of us.
I am a white, bi-sexual, nerdy, left of center leaning man. I am unashamed to admit that life may be particularly different for me due to the color of my skin, and I am equally unafraid to state the resonance I perceive with the idea of feeling marginalized by the place from where you come from. Coogler is unafraid as well. Coogler unabashedly takes over “Black Panther,” and like few other Marvel directors, he makes this film his own. He delivers loud and earnest messages upon the inherent segregation we feel towards those who have a darker shade of skin, but also the perpetual fear of those who do not come from the same place we do.
Coogler (“Creed” & ”Fruitvale Station”) and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole (“American Crime Story”) begin this story in 1992, with a group of black kids playing on a blacktop basketball court in Oakland, California. After a young King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) learns of his younger brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) trespassing, he must take action. This leads to this painted imagery of a group of black kids looking up to the sky as mysterious lights disappear into the night. These are not floating lights though; they are lights attached to one of Wakanda’s many technological advancements, technological advancements that become sporadic through the film. From Kimoyo beads to Vibranium alloys to the delivery railway system that T'Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), designed. Wakanda is a multiplex of futurism that is constructed with a beautiful design from Ryan Coogler.
The technology and visual effects are not the only areas worthy of praise in the visible makeup that Coogler applies to “Black Panther.” There is also the tactile-like costume design. The tribal-based garments, the sharp colors, and the tangibility attached to it all is a testament to both Ryan Coogler and the team he assembled. The fashionista achievement by Ruth Carter and Rachel Morrison’s stunning cinematography can be attributed to Coogler’s vision; a vision made clear by the characters it provides.
It’s rare to say with Marvel movies, but Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a good villain. Not only does he provide conflict and a desirable push for his adversary, but he is depicted with such charm and vigilance by Michael B. Jordan. Finding himself directed by Coogler for the third time, Michael B. Jordan delivers a jarring and charismatic performance for a character that asks tough questions of the Wakandan king. How can a king of mostly black people sit on his throne in silence while many others receive unfair treatment? How can a king of black decent not seek justice for the unjust treatment of his ancestors? These questions are asked by Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and kind of answered by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
He sort of walks around them instead of confronting them. He answers like a politician trying to find a middle ground of reason, which is sensible but unexciting much like the character of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is throughout the film. Boseman may deliver another excellent depiction of the character, but the writing never gives T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) that much to do or to stand against. There is an opposing conflict to his rise as king, but he handles most of the film’s dilemmas with such ease and charm that it was hard to stress about him possibly being defeated. He has few moments of emotion such as when he questions the sins of his father in the Ancestral plane (a beautifully rendered land in which the living go to speak to the dead), or when he sits in front of the sunrise as he listens to these pleas for justice in the film's finale. These moments are subverted and overshadowed by both Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Ryan Coogler’s writing. I took a lot of things with me from “Black Panther,” but T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was not one of them.
It’s the one glaring flaw in Coogler’s near masterpiece of comic book filmmaking. Especially when you consider the array of characters that follow T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and how they become far more memorable. Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is a courageous girl who sees the potential of helping out the rest of the world with the amount of advancement that Wakanda has in both culture and resources. She’s an aspiring activist who doesn’t scare easy. Another character who doesn’t scare easy is Okoye (Danai Gurira), a warrior guard of the king whose skills and humor are not limited. She’s as deadly as she is funny, which makes for some great banter in a James Bond-like sequence that takes place in a casino. There’s also Shuri (Letitia Wright) whose a brash, funny, and incredibly well-written character whose desire for improvement is of the highest order.
It’s not just the ladies who are on fire in “Black Panther” though; you can also find familiar characters like Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis). Both of whom seem to have a great deal of fun with their roles. There is also M’Baku (Winston Duke) whose handsomeness can only be rivaled by his catchy chants, and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) whose arch is forced by a hair or two, but makes sense for the story overall.
There is a lot to rave about with “Black Panther,” as you can see. Many will love this film, and it will be even more special for those kids who have yet to see themselves on screen this much in an epic like this one. But it’s a film that’s not just for them, but for all of us to be wary of the message being shouted by Ryan Coogler. It may be brash, but after centuries of unequal treatment, I think Coogler, as many others do, has the right to be a little outspoken.
“Black Panther” carries that candid message with elegance and there might be one or two blemishes to find on its final cut. The movie works though, but as Shuri (Letitia Wright) states “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” A lesson for Coogler to learn for the sequel.