“Black Panther” is a watershed moment for superhero cinema. It’s the first comic book movie in the mainstream eye to feature a primarily black cast, it’s written and directed by a celebrated black filmmaker, and it shares its name with one of the most effectual parties of the civil rights movement. In taking a step towards superhero equality, Marvel has the chance to improve superhero movie quality.
This opportunity gets off to a rocky start. The movie begins with an opening monologue that explains the entire backstory in great detail, thus ruining future twists for anyone with the ability to think deductively. It’s an anemic storytelling method that sucks the blood out of narrative vitality; often a sure sign that the proceeding plot will not require much thought.
The film improves on this front, at first. Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s previous efforts were infused with social commentary and “Black Panther” continues in the same political vein. It’s the first MCU movie to seriously consider real world issues: systemic oppression, destabilization of power structures, and drawbacks of isolationism are just a few of the problems that pollute the world of the fantastic.
And a fantastic world this is! The nation of Wakanda is designed as an ornate love letter to African culture. The costume design, set design, Wakandan traditions and mythology, established hierarchy and meticulous mechanisms—it all coalesces into production design that excites as much as it empowers. The worldbuilding also deconstructs the “magical black character” trope that reinforced people of color as Others in American cinema: Wakandans are people of science and technology, not magic, and their superior advancements are not of service to white protagonists.
The same care was not taken with the usage of CGI and green screen, which ranges from obvious to embarrassingly horrendous. There are a couple scenes so clearly positioned in front of a fabricated backdrop that they look two-dimensional.
They share that dimensional plane with what becomes of the story. “Black Panther” fumbles its societal gravitas after stumbling headlong into the same old Marvel routine. The strongest example of this is the villain’s wasted potential. The most memorable villains are the ones that have a point, and Killmonger initially does: he condemns Wakanda’s refusal to ease black suffering the world over. But what’s his solution to this nuanced sociopolitical conundrum? Kill everyone and rule the world. His point is taken to such an extreme that he fades out into another archetype of broad villainy.
The clichés don’t stop there. Predictable fake outs, last minute conveniences, and logical inconsistencies abound—in the case of the latter two, “Black Panther” is actually worse off than usual Marvel fare. Coogler’s dialogue bounces between inspiring speeches and clumsy references (even going so far as to quote a meme that died three years ago), so even the studio’s token tonal balance is off.
Coogler’s directorial style thrives when framing one-on-one battles—he captures raw physicality with a kinetic energy that’s rare to blockbuster movies—but he struggles to match this dynamism in larger scale skirmishes. The action of “Black Panther” is hit or miss, depending on the size of the fight at hand.
At least the cast and the soundtrack consist of hits all around. The supporting cast, which includes every other talented black actor working today, is so full of charisma that leading man Chadwick Boseman seems stiff by comparison. Letitia Wright and Michael B. Jordan are the heavy hitters here, stealing scenes with a vigor matched by the Kendrick Lamar-curated songs.
These pluses may not outweigh the negatives, but “Black Panther” is a step forward for Marvel, however messy. The possibilities moving forward are more compelling than the growing pains on display here.