Review: BLACK PANTHER is a Bold, Beautiful Step Forward for Marvel
Representation matters, and the most profitable movie franchise of all time is putting their money where their mouth is.
While recent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have served as welcomed homecomings for superstar characters, launchpads for future endeavors, or straight up devolutions into forgettable comedies, Black Panther does none of these things. What Marvel and director Ryan Coogler have given us instead is something long overdue: Representation.
The MCU is now 18 films strong with the release of Panther, and for the first time in this decade-long box office domination we're seeing a spectacle not only headlined by an African-American actor, but directed and written by a director of the same descent: both surrounded by a full cast of incredibly charismatic and appropriately-cast actors. This is not something Hollywood is good at, not even with as far as the industry has come. Kevin Feige, backed by Marvel and Disney, however, put $200 million dollars into changing the game - and change it he has.
Sure, we've had African-American heroes lead movies before. We've watched Hancock and Spawn struggle with their own demons - even Marvel's own Blade held a well-received trilogy. This is being thrown around a lot in anticipation of Panther, but why? Are African-Americans supposed to be happy that maybe two black superhero films get made in an entire decade? These older films absolutely helped pave the way. The difference is, though, that none of them have any sort of connection to today's most influential piece of cinematic pop culture: The MCU.
Kids of all colors have watched and cheered alongside Iron-Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury since Phase One began in 2008. All of these characters are historically Caucasian, but one genius-stroke of casting has aided Marvel since the very beginning of their studio venture: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
Fury was created and long portrayed as an older, gruff and gray-haired white gentleman for decades of comics - until the Ultimate series came along and rebooted Marvel Comics with an African-American Nick Fury at the head of it all - who also happened to be depicted with Samuel L. Jackson's likeness in mind. There's no way Marvel's creative heads could've known at the time (way back in the early 2000s) that years later their inspiration for this new Fury would end up portraying him for over a decade on film, but we have them and Fiege to thank for it.
And that's the thing: it's not as if Marvel Studios hasn't striven for inclusion since the beginning, because they have. But there's an enormous difference between inclusion and true representation.
Marvel's desire for inclusion has seen a prominent role given to Jackson's Nick Fury since the beginning, as well as Don Cheadle's War Machine and the later addition of Anthony Mackie's Falcon. But I don't have to tell you here that each of these characters have been sidelined as either supporting cast or literal sidekicks to the "true stars" of the MCU - all of them white as an envelope.
Black Panther changes all of that. With style.
If this doesn't mean anything to you, then you're probably very used to representation in the media. But what if you weren't? What if the movies were great fun still, sure, but you never truly felt like they represented you in any personal way? What if whenever you saw someone who looked like you on a poster it was only in a dark, small corner - almost as if you were being hidden?
Take a step back, just for a minute, and imagine.
Imagine you are a young African-American who has grown up going to the movies seeing superhero posters that look like this:
Then, one day, you see one that looks like this - for the first time:
Representation matters. It resonates. It inspires. Most of all: it changes cultural perception.
Many people are much more qualified to speak on this subject than myself, but I left this film with my eyes wide and my heart wider. This is a warm film, one crafted with love and beauty that can only come from places of genuine empathy and artistry. There is not a contrived or malicious bone in Black Panther's body - and for this it is a magnanimous, perfectly-timed success for Marvel in today's America.
Panther tackles representation, politics, poverty, world peace, cultural norms, and straight-up racism head on with class and poise. Many films have attempted the same, but Panther's essence as a comic book movie allows it to do so with a warmth and bravado most genres don't allow for. The only reason such warmth is so effective, however, is because Coogler doesn't pull any punches when necessary. He, and his characters, call it like they see it - like they feel it - and like it is - which makes for an extremely well-rounded commentary.
Coogler's direction truly deserves recognition for the balancing act he and his team are able to achieve here. Everything mentioned above is no small feat, especially when so masterfully combined with he full art design on display, the score, and phenomenal cast. Each elevate these messages, backed by the biggest pop culture platform in the world - which drives home the film's biggest triumph:
Thanks to the MCU's previous success, millions of kids of all colors and backgrounds will see this film, and it will impact they way they perceive who they are, their self-worth, and above all: what a hero can look like.
Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa is a fierce warrior and charismatic king who knows loss, but has never truly struggled outside the borders of Wakanda's ultimate safehaven. Not until the death of his father, former King T'Chaka, has the young man felt what it was like to struggle. His emotional connection to his fallen father is powerful and serves as much of T'Challa's drive in the film, but Coogler's script challenges him in a much more dynamic way by bringing in a villain with direct ties to not only T'Challa's past - but his greatest weaknesses as well. The part, Killmonger, is played expertly by Michael B. Jordan, but is - in Marvel fashion- heavily sidelined in favor of furthering the good guys' exposition. The two do not share enough screentime to form any sort of true rivalry or bond, but their duality is effective and certainly makes for a plausible upheaval of Wakanda.
In this, Jordan's Killmonger reduces T'Challa to nothing more than a platform that would've crumbled without the pillars of amazing women, and the casting choices for said women are absolutely stellar. So while Boseman stole the show in his Winter Soldier debut and in Panther he shows himself worthy of leading an incredibly promising franchise; it is the supporting cast of women who steal the show this time around.
Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia helps open T'Challa's eyes to a wider world of poverty an inequality she herself has explored, serving as much more than a typical love interest. She's a fierce warrior herself who has seen true horrors, and sacrificed a cushy life in Wakanda to help those in need. Nyong'o's own inherent charisma and strength works wonders for Nakia, and helps her form a fantastic dichotomy with another powerhouse Panther has to offer: Danai Gurira's Okoye.
Gurira's General Okoye displays a true loyalty to her position that is a rarity in a Hollywood increasingly fascinated with scoundrels and anti-heroes willing to toe both sides of the line (a mentality Gurira is no stranger to, famous for portraying Michonne on AMC's Walking Dead). Okoye's unwavering respect for what she believes to be right is backed by the film's stand-out performance: Gurira is an absolute tour-de-force of both physical and emotional talent. She leads a cast of powerful heroines who show that beauty, strength, grace, and handing out ass-whoopings are in no way mutually exclusive things for a woman. Women have, of course, known this all along, but Hollywood is still catching up.
Alongside them comes the breakout star of the film and my personal favorite, Letitia Wright's Shuri. Shuri is the Princess of Wakanda, and T'Challa's younger, tech-savvy sister. This all does her a disservice, however, as she is far beyond just T'Challa's younger sister, and lightyears ahead of just a "tech-savvy" young lady. Shuri houses technological talents that would make Tony Stark blush, and even with such wonders at her fingertips she serves to keep both the film and T'Challa grounded with a hilariously sincere performance from Wright.
The rest of the cast is elevated by such magnificent actors as Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman , and Get Out's phenomenal Daniel Kaluuya - each in top form. Really, there isn't a single weakpoint among the entirety of the creative team: if you bring up an actor or crewmember involved they gave 100% and it shows.
This is credit to both their individual talents and those of the film's writer/director, Ryan Coogler. Coogler's movie is the latest entry in the MCU's long tapestry, yes, but works fully as a standalone film - a rarity these days in the franchise. His heart is worn on its sleeve, too, and he plays Panther out as a fairy tale and morality play disguised as a superhero epic - which works beautifully both in terms of the storytelling and visual artistry. The age-old, unparalleled natural beauty of Africa is on full display here, and Coogler forms an artful juxtaposition between it and modern African-American culture. The two are weaved into one narrative that serves to represent an entire facet of world culture that most turn would rather turn a blind eye toward than be uncomfortable - and that only could have been orchestrated by someone who has lived it themselves.
I would be remiss if not to mention how much everything mentioned above is elevated by the score and soundtrack within, as well, as Black Panther boasts the best musical composition in the MCU since Thor by a landslide.
When Coolger and Panther are guilty of any shortcomings amidst so many triumphs, they are few and far between. Jordan's Killmonger needed more screentime, and the plot suffers from a long absence of its titular character, but outside of this only one thing distracts from this gorgeous thrillride: Somehow, Coogler & the Marvel team fell into the comic book movie's Achilles' heel. They chose to make their climactic battle between hero and villain a borderline-cartooned CGI fest, when every fight leading up to it was real, choreographed, and grittily performed on set.
What else is there to say? The film is a major win for Marvel, and a much needed entry in America's landscape of modern blockbusters. The entire heart, soul, and purpose of this film are apparent throughout - but each is perfectly encapsulated in one of its final scenes. After all that has transpired, T'Challa travels to America, meeting a young African-American boy who sees a hero that looks not like Cap or Thor or Spidey or Stark... but like him. It's a perfect moment that drives home the importance of not stopping shy at inclusion, but going for the home run of true representation.
Marvel's Black Panther goes for the home run.
Here's to hoping it opens millions of eyes wider than they were before entering; not just for the spectacle, but for the meaning within it all. Mine certainly were.
Black Panther opens Nationwide February 16th, 2018