At its core, this is a movie about a guy with a stressful new job trying to win back his ex-girlfriend.
Or I missed the point.
Director Ryan Coogler and his cast and crew have created an incredible journey through a whole new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that is equal parts stylish and substantive, entertaining and important.
Taking it from the top, and including only the most minor of spoilers, tying the story of fictional Wakanda and Black Panther into the very real world of 1992 Oakland was a wonderful choice. It instantly grounds a fictional story about a faraway land of borderline magical technology within a greater world of real struggles, a theme that is repeated through the film and is central to new King T’Challa’s internal struggle to realize Wakanda’s place in the world. Further, the opening scenes establish the tradition of the Black Panther in Wakanda, which later expands to how important tradition is to the country in general. The consistency in world-building stands out in this special slice of the MCU.
Speaking of standing out…Black Panther has an incredible aesthetic. I mean, it’s to be expected, thanks to the rich cultural traditions of Africa that Wakanda draws on for inspiration. Integration of this tradition with both futuristic elements and modern urban style is what makes Wakanda, and Black Panther’s art direction, so unique and special. This extends past the visuals to the soundtrack as well. Jared Kleber, CEO of lowupside.com and hip-hop reviewer extraordinaire, already reviewed Black Panther: The Album on our site a few days ago, and he was spot-on in his analysis of the sounds and influences. I want to add to his review and say that this musical “tradition” extends to the Black Panther original soundtrack. The soundtrack is composed by Ludwig Göransson, who scored Coogler’s films Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), as well as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Like the visuals, the music is a seamless blend of traditional and modern.
Traditional and modern. This diametric opposition is central to the film, and to T’Challa’s character (performed excellently by Chadwick Boseman). The two opposing forces of Wakanda come to a head within him as the new king. It falls to him to decide Wakanda’s place in the world, and whether to maintain the status quo, or to expand his country’s influence. He sits at the eye of this storm of voices, a new king, unsure of himself, and by the end of the film is able to assert himself as ruler and lead his people. This transformation is more important to the story than any overdone superhero origin.
This metaphorical “storm of voices” is literally what might be the best reason to see the movie: the cast. Top to bottom, the actors and actresses deliver. Standouts for me are Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist Killmonger and Letitia Wright as Shuri, the princess of Wakanda. Jordan delivers some of the most powerful lines in the film, and brings a performance so strong that you truly believe that he thinks he’s the protagonist of his own story, even despite all the killing. Wright nails teenager, royal princess, and superhero-level technological genius in equal measure, and on top of that has some of the best moments of comic relief in the comic book movie. Other strong performances include supporting performances by Angela Bassett as the royal matriarch and Sterling K. Brown as T’Challa’s uncle, but none of the cast is lacking.
Overall, this is a film that knew how important it would be to the people it was made for, and it came through. Representation is important. On top of that, Coogler and company delivered arguably the best Marvel film to date. Black Panther is a celebration and a triumph, and deserves both the praise and the hype.