I ventured out into the world this weekend to see the newest Marvel Studios Avengers side-story, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. Normally, I try to avoid the opening weekend crowd, especially for a film that has as this much pre-release hype -- getting stuck in a terrible seat with too many people around is far from the ideal movie-going experience in my opinion. But I was really excited to see Black Panther, so I opted to attend the earliest possible screening on Sunday hoping that it would be as comfortable as possible.
When I entered the cineplex, it was as crowded as I've ever seen it despite being 10:30 in the morning. I figured the screening was maybe already sold out, but I was able to get a ticket. The large theater was almost completely full when I entered it, only the few rows at the front of the room with any openings. When I sat down, though, I didn't think it would probably be worthwhile to just come back next weekend when the fervor had died down a bit, but was transported back to being 9-years-old so excited to see Jurassic Park that the only option was to sit as closely to the action as possible.
It is easy to be cynical about the current state of movies, especially the glut of uninspired blockbusters that come out every weekend. What Marvel Studios produces is far from the worst entertainment you can see on the big screen, though their continual stream and their corporate design certainly impact the high end of their potential. Most of their films are simply 'good' -- they often have the same flaws but also the same level of competence in their mix of filmmaking and pure entertainment.
Black Panther is a Marvel production through-and-though, but this is definitely on the upper end of their quality spectrum. It isn't flawless, but it openly addresses some of the biggest challenges these films often meet. It isn't as openly comedic as many of the most recent Marvel films [Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, in particular], though it has its moments. Instead, Black Panther is a parable of family and community and the struggle between tradition and modernization, isolation and global responsibility.
Black Panther has so much on its plate, so many things to say and explore. This isn't surprising coming from Ryan Coogler, who many see as one of the most talented and insightful young filmmakers of this generation. No one would have blamed the film or its makers for being just another middle-of-the-road entertainments -- it likely would have still made a ton of money and gotten very good reviews from critics and audiences. Having its own identity and trying to be more is good to see. Black Panther's success won't ultimately have that much effect on the way Marvel or the other big studios make blockbusters, but it doesn't need that whole other weight on its shoulders, too.
What it's about: T'Challa is the king of Wakanda, an African nation that has disguised itself from the world with their advanced technologies. As the rest of the world has dealt with various atrocities and calamities, Wakanda has survived generations with their traditions intact while their incredible resources [a powerful metal called vibranium from a meteor that landed on Earth centuries ago is embedded in the mountains surrounding their city] allow them to future-proof their survival from the increasingly dangerous outside world. After a failed attempt to capture arms dealer Ulysses Klaue [Andy Serkis] and bring him to justice, the fate of Wakanda is in the balance. Increasing events have led T'Challa to wonder if isolating themselves from a dying world they could aid is right.
I'll refrain from freely revealing plot details, but be warned of spoilers ahead.
One of the most surprisingly fresh aspects of the film is how much of an ensemble work it is. Chadwick Boseman is definitely the star and Black Panther is front-and-center, but as a film about a community, everyone in that community is given a shake. There are many standouts, but the biggest are Letitia Wright [from Black Mirror's museum episode] as Shuri, T'Challa's younger sister and the tech expert of Wakanda, and Danai Gurira as Okoye, the badass general that leads Wakanda's women warriors. More familiar faces like Forrest Whittaker, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya and Lupita Nyong'o also give wonderful performances.
It is truly Michael B. Jordan that takes the movie by force. As Killmonger, the highly trained mercenary that eventually becomes the film's great antagonist, Jordan lights up the screen with brawn and fire.
The Marvel films have long had a villain problem -- possibly by design, they are never as interesting or complete or attractive as the heroes. This is flipped on its head in Black Panther, as Killmonger isn't just an ordinary menace, but complicated and rightful in his anger. He's like if Adonis Johnson's tragic past and drive were turned up to 11. Coogler doesn't create an anti-hero exactly, but he understands the complex personalities that would arise as the power imbalance would increase in this super-powered world.
There is so much thematic ground in Black Panther that makes it powerfully relevant. My favorite is reckoning with a duly appointed leader who might be an active danger to the country and its people. What is the responsibility of a citizen when they see that their leader doesn't care about the formalities and traditions that have been built through the generations? Should they obey the process or resist? Sound familiar?
Another theme, one less obvious, that the film covers is how political radicalization can occur through oppression. There aren't any specific allusions to ISIS or terrorism, but the rise of certain characters and their ideology struck me in this way.
There is plenty of action, though none of it is exemplary to me -- an extended car chase and a large scale battle at the climax are the high points. This action doesn't feel or look remarkably differently to the usual output from Marvel. To me, it is much more a film about characters and ideas. That is where Black Panther shines.