With a progressive political backbone and a mythology that could be inscribed in old testament tablet, “Black Panther” says something that’s loud and oh so proud. Purple lights dance with orange hues in a VFX cinematography ballet. Characters are delicately crafted with personalities as unique as their Wakandan wardrobe. And a humanistic, directorial approach from Ryan Coogler makes “Black Panther” ring true among the Marvel movie ethos.
This is a special moviegoing experience, a near-religious viewing event whose effects are as profound as the fables of its lost kings. We are swept away in the magnitude of “Black Panther’s” story, the resilience of its characters, its ability to blend old world fable and new world technology, and to carry a message that seems neither heavy-handed nor overstated. Perhaps most impressively, is the first “Marvel” movie to disassociate itself with its comic identity, with the Marvel Studios header not appearing until “Black Panther” boldly declared its identity in the opening minutes.
While its heroes wear tattoos and scars bearing the symbols of its history, “Black Panther” reassures us that its skin is clean of the Marvel brand. Its action sequences feel more akin to “Casino Royale” or “The Bourne Identity” than “Iron Man,” its spirituality and belief system having a deeper tie with “The Lion King” than the politically-charged “Captain America” films. And finally, we are given a villain whose motivations are honest and established even before the hero’s story took place. That isn’t the telling of a good story, that’s the making of a legend.
Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa, a Wakandan prince who is ready to take on the throne after his father’s death, depicted in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” Two years have passed since that movie was released, but in “Black Panther’s” universe, it’s only been a few days since those events, and now T’Challa is just ascending to the Wakanda throne. He’s assured of his leadership, confident in his skill set, a levelheaded mind balanced by a loving family and a high tech arsenal of weapons.
Outside of T’Challa’s realm of monarchy lurks Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a no-holds-barred aggressor with a deep grudge against Wakanda. Killmonger’s methods are despicable but his grudge is understandable. He’s an idealist trying to achieve Cold War diplomacy through games of Russian Roulette. T’Challa is deeply devoted to his people and his family, but when he realize the lies that lurk under Wakanda’s surface, he questions if his choices are for the greater good, or just his own.
Punctuating these dances and duels is a rich, drum-based score by Ludwig Goransson. The rhythm of his percussive instruments charge each scene with energy and attention. While operatic strings are used in more emotional moments, the drums transport us to the most primal of storytelling eras, good vs. evil stripped down to its bare bones. It’s not the most unique superhero score you’ve heard, it’s the most unique movie composition this decade.
The story constantly interweaves characters while keeping things on a steady pace. We know enough about T’Challa’s former lover Nakia (Lupia Nyong’o), or the country’s spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker). At no point do we ever question decisions or motivations. And when characters reappear, it’s like encountering a long, lost friend. Wakanda is hidden on the map, but this script needed no direction to get where it wanted to go.
Story and pathos prevail in “Black Panther,” but setting still could be more evolved. Wakanda is depicted as a utopia, technologically-advanced to every capacity. Still, one does not get a good impression of what life actually feels like for non-nobility in Wakanda. Do all citizens bode the same rights, or have the same access to economic opportunity? The country’s political mentality is isolationist, but there still must be domestic problems about in Wakanda? Hell, we got a better glimpse of the struggles of life in 1992 Oakland than we did modern day supercountry.
Perhaps Coogler didn’t want to touch upon this since hero’s relation to his people and country is documented in full in all three “Thor” movies. Not only in those Marvel flicks do we learn just how much Thor cares for his people, we get an actual sense of what life is like for the commoner of Asgard. Regardless of if they live in West Asgard or the Upper West Side, one could argue we don’t need to know how every commoner in the Marvel universe goes about their day.
But another reason that setting is an under-stroke might be how “Black Panther” isn’t so much a movie about politics or war as much a family squabble. Coated in nobility and expressed in combat, these characters aren’t necessarily fighting to achieve something as much as right a wrong that has been committed by or against a loved one. T’Challa wants to reclaim his father’s sins, Killmonger earn back his father’s name, T’Challa’s sister and mother fight for him.
But often times these motivations are misplaced. T’Challa is angry at his dad for not living up to his own expectations, Killmonger wants revenge for his father but is blidned by hubris and ego. Everyone says they live vicariously through another’s experience in “Black Panther,” a unique case for how the collective will can be just as selfish as pursing an individual good. Everyone genuinely believes they are doing the right thing. When those beliefs clash, “Black Panther” turns the resulting conflict into celebration.