BLACK PANTHER (Movie Review)

**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for prolonged sequences of action violence, language, and a brief rude gesture)
Released: February 16, 2018
Runtime: 134 minutes
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Guria, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, John Kani

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It may technically be a Marvel movie, but Black Panther is in its own cinematic universe.

Elevating the superhero tentpole like no other since The Dark Knight, using genre as a construct to not simply mirror relevant cultural issues but actually wrestle with them, Black Panther is more than a brand-shattering revolution for the MCU. It’s a rally cry for an entire race.

And writer / director Ryan Coogler got Disney shareholders to pay $200 million dollars for it.

Nolan’s second Batman movie was, deep down, about the existential reality of terrorism, and the seeming futility to defeat a psychosis that just wants “to watch the world burn”. Likewise, Coogler’s Black Panther is a parable, about the psyche and soul of the African-American identity.

Its inclusion into the ongoing Marvel saga is tangential at best. Almost entirely devoid of franchise building, Black Panther may be the first completely insular MCU episode, not spending half of its time (nor any) on interconnecting itself into the larger whole; it doesn’t even rely on a single solitary Avenger guest star or cameo.

Other than the Marvel vanity logo at the very beginning and the final (of two) end-credit bonuses at the very end, the only giveaway that this is part of the Marvel assembly line is that Stan Lee has a cameo (and even that is among the best ever done).

It’s as if when Coogler was handed the MCU rulebook, he gave it a cursory glance, said “Well isn’t that cute”, and then tossed it aside.

This isn’t a generic origin story. Instead, it’s a mesmerizing submersion into a whole new mythos, one not beholden to a checklist of standard “hero’s journey” beats, even as it uses several. The trick to its success: Coogler and his acting ensemble somehow make those beats organic, uniquely character-driven, and not obligatory.

The stakes, mercifully, are self-contained. Instead of the fate of the world (or galaxy) being on the line, it’s the fate of Wakanda – a fictional African nation – that’s at play; not if it will be destroyed (yawn) but of who will lead it.

That battle for supremacy isn’t merely good verses evil. It’s a fight over ideology, over what that country’s raison d’être should be – to itself and to Africans around the world – and at the center of that fight is a need to determine how best to repent for that country’s sins of complacency, compromise, and even betrayal.

Coogler wields a great command of action, narrative, and theme, melding them all without having any get bogged down by the others, and peppers in just the right amount of comic relief, the kind that catches you off guard rather than being telegraphed or winked.

The excessive digital effects and landscapes – a patented Marvel aesthetic – are the only minor drawbacks to an experience that is otherwise entirely transportive. (Forgo the 3D, too. Seriously. Actively avoid it. It muddies and blurs the whole palette, especially lower-lit visuals like ones that front-load the film’s opening act.)

And while this thrilling action movie can be fully embraced on its surface level alone (it’s also, notably, Marvel’s most violent), Coogler has nevertheless crafted Black Panther into a pop culture Trojan horse for a serious debate – and self-examination – about African-American agency.

Far from a boring treatise or preachy political screed, this is a filmmaker taking stock of where his community is at, how it got here, and how they all can move forward by their own resolve and empowerment. The answer isn’t in demanding something from society or rebelling against it. It’s in leading it.

Transcending cheap parallels of cause célèbre activism (Black Lives Matter, et al), Coogler goes beyond social justice talking points to a richer, deeper philosophical debate that’s far more challenging.

Using the hero / villain conflict between T’Challa (a.k.a. Black Panther) and Killmonger to contrast warring worldviews within American black culture – almost like a nascent MLK up against a vengeful Malcolm X – Coogler pits Black Pride against Black Rage. Pride rooted in history. Rage born of injustice.

Coogler’s conviction is clearly with the ideal, but he still acknowledges that anger exists for valid reasons, ones that must be named and even serve as catalysts.

It’s as if Coogler (director of Creed and Fruitvale Station) is bringing the ongoing internal debate of his own community out into the open, having an honest conversation with his fellow African-Americans about who they should be and how they should get there, letting all sides have their say, and is bold enough to let the rest of us in on it.

In terms of style and tone, well, it may not be my place as a barely-woke white boy to say, but I don’t know how else to put it: Black Panther is unrepentantly black.

Primarily set in Wakanda, where Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa reigns as king, Coogler’s vision embraces the cultural roots of the African continent. From beautifully designed costumes that reflect ethnic heritage (some even go full lip plate) to ditching a traditionally orchestrated score for one that’s percussive and tribal, Coogler’s instinct is to lean authentic, not “accessible”.

He also keeps it real on the streets of Oakland, CA, not in a desperate attempt for street cred but as a locale with its own history, one that can help Coogler weave in the themes he’s wanting to unpack.

He does right by his actors, too (as they do in return), giving them each characters that are equal to each other in strength, intellect, and insight – regardless of gender – even as their specific talents may differ or their worldviews clash. No one’s power is defined in part by their sexuality, either, just strictly by their own integrity (even when misguided).

Marvel also seems to have solved its villain problem: make their motives personal, not maniacal, have them be a victim of some injustice, then hire a great actor (like Michael Keaton or, here, Michael B. Jordan) that can bring those layers to life. Jordan is a powerful, intimidating presence as Killmonger, embracing the man’s rage yet making it controlled, motivated, and purposeful, not random, causing us to empathize with how he came to his anger even as we are repelled by it.

Coogler, it seems, is the first Marvel director to be granted the license to make whatever movie he wants. The result is the work of an auteur, not a corporate machine, a filmmaker with something to say and the command to say it.

In the process, he’s made a seminal film in the history of Black Cinema, the kind that will likely be analyzed and discussed in African-American Studies programs on college campuses for years (if not decades) to come.

There’s two Avengers Infinity Wars looming on the horizon, but before either has been released they already feel antiquated, obsolete, even pointless. To go back to that ridiculously contrived video game melodrama of superhero all-stars in pursuit of colorful jeweled MacGuffins seems like such a regression. The future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now. And indisputably, it’s Black Panther.

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