Movie Review : Black Panther (2018)
Last Sunday, I officially became the last person on Earth to see Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s critically hailed superhero movie generated over 1,3 billion dollars in box-office revenue since its release and countless analysis pieces calling it a cinematic revolution, so it didn’t exactly need my input to survive. And you know what I think of superhero movies. I preferred to let Black Panther be and imagine it really was different and revolutionary and not exactly like every other Marvel movie, which… are all alike. But I’ve finally seen it, thanks to Netflix. And I’m glad to say it had a couple pleasant surprises for me. Not a lot, but enough to make it better than most Marvel movies.
Let me explain.
I feel like a fool recapping Black Panther, but maybe an extraterrestrial life form is going to read this post in 25 years so I’ll do it. Black Panther is the story of T’Challa (the awesomely named Chadwick Boseman), prince of the hermit kingdom of Wakanda, which hides its technological advancements from the world. He is also the titular Black Panther, who kicks ass and protects his country. After his father’s death, T’Challa is crowned king and assumes his old man’s duties of chasing foreigners out of the country and keeping their precious natural resource safe. Which leads him to a long lost family member who grew up outside of Wakanda and believes their isolationist politics are stupid. A civil war ensues, more or less.
This is a better movie than I thought it would be. I’m not going to discuss the cultural politics of Black Panther because it’s been done to death and I really have nothing to add to the myriad of brilliant essays out there. It’s in the movie, it’s done admirably well. If it’s your thing, you’re probably like it even more than I do. But my point today is: Black Panther is interesting as a movie alone, too.
One thing I really liked about Black Panther is… that I wasn’t sure I liked Wakandians at first. They were too perfect, like annoying cousins your mom invites over for dinner to shame you out of your rut. They’re technologically super advanced, yet are more in touch with their traditions than us; They’re physically gorgeous, yet spiritual and kind; They’re super athletic, yet have a sense of style that is second to none. These fucking guys don’t live in a utopia, they ARE the freakin’ utopia. That’s why it’s so satisfying when the one mistake T’Challa’s father made during his reign come back and bite them all in the ass. Of course, I’m talking about Killmonger (the always great Michael B. Jordan) here.
Killmonger’s been called the most interesting antagonist since Heath Ledger’s Joker, a decade ago *. It’s not wrong. There hasn’t been that many antagonist with that much implication in the storyline since then. Killmonger is not an evil to defeat. He’s the dark reflection of the Wakadian utopia. He was denied entry into Wakanda following his father’s murder by T’Challa’s father because he was half-american and lived outside the country, in Oakland, California. King T’Chaka (John Kani) simply abandoned him, leaving young Killmonger to grow up fueled by anger and resentment towards his own people. Should the script have been different, he could’ve been the hero of Black Panther and T’Challa the unworthy heir who claims legitimacy through blood lineage.
So, I got a kick out of that.
But while Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole did a bang up job with the screenplay, Black Panther is still very much a Marvel movie. It goes through all the mandatory beats Disney believes you want to see in a movie: there’s a car chase, CGI-enhanced hand-to-hand combat where Wakadians show their preternatural superiority, an “inmost cave” moment where all hope seems to be lost before the hero eventually triumphs after an epic battles, blah blah, you know what I mean. I’m sure Ryan Coogler valiantly battled Disney to break free of the blockbuster aesthetic as much as possible and he’s won some battles, but Black Panther is still funneled through this “foolproof” model that leaves the potential for surprises close to zero. Its resounding success should buy him good karma for the sequel, though.
So, Black Panther’s revolution is more cultural than formal. I’m OK with that because it proved a point: a movie directed, lead and featuring almost only black people can be just as popular as any other Marvel movies, if not more. And Ryan Coogler did it right. There’s a lot of love and craft put in this screenplay and its interpretation. It doesn’t feel cheap or cynical. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of something. Black Panther picked its battle with the system that produced and distributed it, but it won them all. But there’s more potential not only within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for movies at large to show they don’t have to follow a certain model to succeed. I’m counting on you, Ryan Coogler. Lead the way.
* Wow, time flies.