Black Panther is probably the smartest movie Marvel has made yet.
We saw it the other night. I’m writing this knowing that my review is going to be terrible, because I loved the movie so much. It’s too much fun, it’s too well done, it’s too socially savvy, for me to give it a thrashing. I spent most of the movie grinning like a maniac. So rather than “The Good, The Bad, The WTF,” I’ll just focus on a few points that the movie executes like an olympic figure skater on uppers, hopefully without spoiling too much.
So here’s what’s awesome about it.
The film is beautifully cast with characters to love, and to love to hate, all around. Sterling K. Brown turns everything he touches to gold. We didn’t even know he was in the movie when we bought our tickets — and he’s just a minor part. Here you’ve got the likes of juggernauts like Forrest Whitaker, playing a damaged prime minister type; Angela Bassett, the widowed queen and mother to the new king — and these, again, are only the supporting cast.
If you don’t leave the theater loving Shuri (Letitia Wright) and quoting her (“What are THOOOOOOOSSSSEEEEE??”), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t leave the theater conflicted as hell over the fate and the idealism of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (horrible name but fantastic villain), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t pump your fist and grit your teeth every time Danai Gurira’s Okoye puts the smack down on some hapless dude, there may be something wrong with you.
Of course, the titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is dashing and conflicted and awesome. He’s believable and sympathetic, and he anchors the picture admirably. But the standout really is the supporting cast; especially:
Okay, so Black Panther is the figurehead, but the movie is less about the single superhero and more about the network propping him up. Of course, they can’t call the movie Black Panther’s Support Group, but trust me when I say that the real heroes of this movie are the women. Shuri is the Q to the Panther’s James Bond: her inventions have BP on the cutting edge of keeping bad guys down. His first lieutenant, Okoye, doles out enough beatdowns on her own to deserve her very own film. And his mother, the former queen, is the glue holding her family — and the country — together in the face of a series of national crises.
They don’t just support the hero, they do virtually all of the heavy lifting. If not for the women, the Panther would be beaten, killed or captured in the first twenty minutes, movie over.
But what’s refreshing about the way this movie treats its women is that there’s not a single moment of condescension or disbelief that the world of Black Panther works in this way. Of course Shuri is the head of technology in Wakanda; why shouldn’t she be? Of course Okoye is the first lieutenant — just look at her fight. (There’s a fantastic moment where one of the male warriors realizes he’s about to have to fight with Okoye, and he is visibly shook.) There’s not a whisper of any futzing about with the “but she’s a girl!” nonsense — from the people in the immediate circle, anyway — they just are what they are.
So it’s sort of an understood rule in storytelling that a good villain can’t be a mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world evil bastard in black. The villain has to be sympathetic, their drives must make sense, there must be an element of there but for the grace of God go I. Every character, and every villain, is the hero of their own story, after all.
But unlike most movies, this villain is particularly problematic. Because if you flip the script around, and imagine that the story we follow is not the story of T’Challa, but is instead the story of Killmonger (god, what a stupid name), the story works just as well — just with a different ending. Killmonger’s goals are entirely sympathetic, and are particularly troublesome for T’Challa: so much so that the king actually has to change the way he thinks about the world.
Killmonger fights for what he knows to be right. He’s a villain only because of the forced perspective the film gives us. That’s good storytelling. And Michael B. Jordan’s performance is really something to behold.
The Social Side
It’s hard to read about the movie without hearing about the social commentary, but what I really love about Black Panther — why I think it’s Marvel’s smartest movie yet — is that the commentary is less sledgehammer, more dagger in your ribs. It’s so easy for movies “with a message” to come at you, guns blazing, with everything but a flashing neon THIS IS IMPORTANT marquee over the screen. Black Panther doesn’t do that. In fact, if you prefer your superhero movies divorced from social commentary, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Black Panther just as much. The meta level is just another layer in a billionty-layer cake of goodness: ruminate on it if you like, ignore it if you don’t. The movie will be just as sweet either way.
But assuming you’re like me and you don’t mind — you actually prefer — to think about what a story is trying to tell you, here’s a taste: Wakanda isn’t a backwater country in deepest Africa. It’s America. Technologically advanced beyond every other nation, yet mired (and maybe even hamstrung) by archaic traditions and religions. Turns a blind eye to the suffering of untold millions across the world in the name of self-preservation. Righteously nationalistic.
Then: the nation finds itself in turmoil when an outsider unseats the king and threatens to blow up the status quo. The second half of the movie is about the power struggle and the existential question of whether the country and its people must adhere to tradition and law or whether they must do what they believe is right.
So … yeah. Let me not spoil things any further.
Look, I love a good superhero movie. I even enjoy a bad superhero movie (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman, which I did not hate). But even a guy like me, who theoretically cannot get enough superhero movies, is sort of suffering from superhero movie fatigue these days. Pretty soon we’ll be on our 5th Spider-Man reboot and Netflix will be launching its original series about Wolverine’s cousin’s daughter’s step-sister. It’s hard to ignore that Marvel is milking the current cash cow for all it’s worth.
But this is a movie worth getting milked over. It’s not just a good superhero movie, it’s a great superhero movie — and a darn good movie, whether it’s about a superhero or not.
Do yourself a favor and see it.
Final verdict: Five out of five cooler-than-you salutes.
All images are obviously the property of Marvel.