On the question of power and responsibility, superhero mystique, villains with righteous causes, and the anomalous dramatic and political viability of Black Panther
Black Panther Walt Disney Studios
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Andy Serkis and Sterling K. Brown
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 14 minutes / 2.39:1
February 16, 2018
(out of four)
It's been so long since superheroes had any mystique, the presentation of Black Panther's eponymous hero is an accomplishment of its own. He's practically the embodiment of mystique, resolutely cloaked in mystique, adhering to it as a matter of ethos. The secrecy is no joke, his entire civilization - Wakanda, of which he is now king - camouflaged behind a force field-like hologram that has protected it from foreign eyes for centuries. The El Dorado of the Marvel universe.
To the outside world, he is - to the extent that he exists at all - a ghost, a myth, a figure only glimpsed, never seen. In a landscape seemingly filled to capacity with superpowered beings - from our own planet and beyond - his absence is both an anomaly and, from a storytelling standpoint, a blessing in and of itself. Being almost entirely secluded from the franchise apparatus to which it ostensibly belongs is an invaluable position for Black Panther. Though we've gotten acquainted with the character before now - T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) making a brief but key appearance in Captain America: Civil War - this feels, more often than not, like the unveiling of a new canvas rather than the modification of an existing one. The film basks in the aura of being undiscovered, introducing itself to us - and the galaxy at large - on its own patient, discreet, yet bold terms.
Not that it really needs the rest of the galaxy, or any of its Avengers. They need Wakanda, and its king, a lot more than it needs them. Wakanda has been doing just fine on its own - which is at the heart of the impressively substantive ideological conflict that director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole carry through the film. A secret nation, a secret king, even a secret superhero - that's one thing. But an isolationist nation whose technological capabilities and innovations far surpass any other on Earth? One with a mighty army and exclusive access to the most valuable, powerful metal in existence? That transforms it from a simple matter of political mindset to a much larger philosophical dilemma.
And for once, in this corporate cocktail of superhero brands, such a dilemma is not just pretext. A few short months after Marvel reached rare heights by embracing its own unimportance - with Thor: Ragnarok's comic brio affectionately lampooning the genre - it has matched or surpassed those heights by doing the opposite, for the first time delivering a movie with actual stakes. Whereas the "ideological debate" of Civil War was largely a masquerade, Black Panther's is an organic byproduct of Wakanda's very existence, rooted in centuries of tradition and exacerbated by the collateral damage of long-kept secrets. The philosophical struggle that plays out is not just well-earned - it's practically an inevitability. We are being brought into this world at the only appropriate time - the time when its place in the world is officially a matter of dispute.
Answering the MCU's general lack of dramatic magnitude is triumph enough, but Coogler does this by simultaneously solving a second, equally common shortcoming (both for Marvel and modern blockbusters in general): the matter of villains. T'Challa's adversary - indeed the adversary of Wakanda itself, its traditions, its security, its self-contained legacy - is Erik Stevens, his career as a ruthless military assassin earning him the nickname Killmonger and the tribal scars across his torso that commemorate each kill. The two men have much in common - both natives of Wakanda, both having lived their lives largely in secret, both from the same family line, T'Challa's father T'Chaka (John Kani) being the brother of Erik's father, Prince N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) - but it's where their stories diverge that their philosophical divide has found room to propagate. T'Challa has spent his life learning to carry on his father's long-standing traditions, preparing to be his heir - and when the film opens he is set to ascend to the throne following his father's death (seen previously in Civil War). Killmonger, meanwhile, has spent his life without a father (who was killed when Erik was very young), expatriated from his country, raised in America and educated in both its own legacy of oppression and that of nations across the world. His well-earned point-of-view is that Wakanda has failed in its moral responsibility to the oppressed - specifically to oppressed people of African descent, an oppression to which he has borne firsthand witness.
Killmonger belongs to the hallowed class of villain - heretofore nonexistent in the MCU - with a noble moral cause. In comic-book movie terms, he is probably closest in spirit to Bane or Magneto, who similarly had noble causes of their own and, like Killmonger in Black Panther, attempted to use tyrannical means to achieve them. And like them, Killmonger is an adversary who must be taken seriously and contended with on complicated moral and political terms. Even good villains in superhero movies don't often have this kind of viability; Lex Luthor doesn't secretly have something to teach the world, or Superman himself. The Joker's chaos has no hidden nutritional value. Cinematic supervillains are motivated by self-interest and a lustful pursuit of power, or vengeance. An added wrinkle to Killmonger's psychology is that, righteous as his cause may be, he's also motivated, to a greater degree than he will acknowledge or accept, by the lingering resentment and bitterness of the childhood tragedy that shaped him. His righteous fury is undercut by his emotional vulnerability.
That there is more connective tissue between these two things - personal animus and political/military philosophy - just goes to show how thoughtful Coogler's storytelling is, top to bottom. Rather than embodying the more simplistic terms that many comic-book films invariably take, he not only indulges the grey complexity of the divide between Wakanda's ideals and Killmonger's revolutionary impulses, but sees it as necessary. In Killmonger we have a villain whose presence challenges the worldview of the hero - a villain who actually alters the moral equilibrium and political status quo of the world he is trying to conquer. Black Panther takes this challenge seriously; it's not merely an obstacle to defeat or a point-of-view to be contradicted or disproven. T'Challa is only just inheriting the throne, and the title and responsibility of Black Panther; it's only right, the film might argue, that he be tested, maybe even defeated; that he have the belief system he merely inherited be challenged, and his understanding of the world upended. Without Killmonger, T'Challa would remain, in a significant sense, naïve.
The forceful, unvarnished authenticity of Michael B. Jordan's performance as Killmonger makes it virtually impossible not to take him seriously, but Coogler and Cole do him justice in a way most Marvel screenplays do not when it comes to exploring their antagonists. Boseman almost has the more thankless role - since it's Erik who drives so much of the narrative - but the effortless grace and quiet strength of his screen presence makes him a more-than-worthy superhero (and king). Admittedly, all this focus on the hero and the villain of the film do an injustice to the rest of an outstanding cast, including Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia, a badass spy and T'Challa's once and future better half; Danai Gurira - who rose to prominence on The Walking Dead but has been doing great work for years in the likes of Treme, Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George and Tom McCarthy's The Visitor - as Okoye, the strong-willed leader of Wakanda's all-female special-forces battalion; and one of the most electric supporting characters in Marvel's stable, T'Challa's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a technological prodigy responsible for creating her country's most advanced weaponry, Wakanda's own personal Q. The Bond similarities are more than incidental; a scene in which Shuri shows off her newest innovations to T'Challa (including a new and improved, ultra-responsive and adaptable Black Panther suit) is followed by a terrific reconnaissance sequence in Busan, South Korea that seems explicitly inspired by Skyfall's Macau casino segment.
One thing the Busan sequence - which shifts from recon to close-quarters combat to thrilling car-chase - underscores, incidentally or not, is that the quality of Marvel movies is often directly proportional to their application of color. Comic-books are inherently colorful, and yet so many of Marvel's entries - even the bright metallic costumes - look as plain and mellow as ... well, the very non-comic reality of daily life. Watching a Joss Whedon Avengers movie often looks no different than walking down Hollywood Blvd on an average evening. And then there's the recent DC slate, which often suffocates its colors with harsh, ugly greys and murky blues.
But here, following in line with Guardians of the Galaxy's cosmic splashes and neon strokes, and the aged, expressive toning of Captain America: The First Avenger's period interpretation, and the playful cartoonishness of Ragnarok's locations, Black Panther is another standout that takes as much advantage of its visual opportunity as it can. From the rich reds, yellows and browns of the casino to the neon pinks and purples lining Busan's Gwangandaegyo Bridge; from the astonishing purples and blues that dominate T'Challa's metaphysical journeys to the ancestral plane to Ruth Carter's dazzling costume work, which combines various traditional African designs with her own ideas and innovations. Coogler is unafraid to open up his spectrum as far as he can, yet he's so disciplined and specific in his color choices that they always, without fail, land with mesmerizing impact, as if he's allowing color itself to guide the film's emotional and psychological pitch from scene to scene. Even the Black Panther suit uses color to actively communicate (another of Shuri's contributions).
Guardians has the built-in rationale of being set on distant planets throughout the cosmos; Black Panther is set on Earth and yet it looks every bit as much like a world of its own. The film accomplishes the rare feat of feeling both tangible and explicitly comic-book-ish. Which is to say it creates an authentic but specific reality of its own, as good movies usually do.
Coming off his great sophomore effort Creed, Coogler makes an impressive leap into the realm of super-sized studio filmmaking. There's a tension that sets in between the corporate machinery governing the film and the visual ideas and techniques Coogler is playing with. His fondness for unbroken shots during physical combat is once again put to use in Black Panther, imbuing what might otherwise have been traditionally previz'd fight sequences with an entirely different sense of physical exposure and vulnerability. There are shots in the film that look every bit like a Marvel film (i.e. conversational scenes set in a snazzy lab/office all composed in medium two-shots), but with completely different impulses governing Carter's costumes and Hannah Beachler's production design.
There is no such tension in most Marvel movies, which - whatever their strengths and whatever their faults - are usually too streamlined and carefully controlled to have either the visual ambition or political consciousness that Coogler and his team bring to the table. It's a well-oiled machine for a reason. As for this particular pairing, Black Panther stands so far apart in practical terms from its MCU counterparts that it's almost a standalone film. One wishes it could stay that way in future entries. Marvel provides the engine for it, and yet it's the studio that may benefit more from Black Panther's existence than Black Panther does from Marvel's. Having a movie with an identity of its own is a welcome new direction. This movie doesn't need your Infinity War.