Film

'Black Panther' Is to Superhero Movies That 'Get Out' Is to Horror Movies

Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018) (© 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios / IMDB)

An action-packed superhero adventure, a sexy spy thriller, a palace intrigue drama, and a poignant tale about the pains and perils of leadership -- Ryan Coogler's epic Black Panther is the most personal Marvel film to date.

Black Panther
Ryan Coogler

Marvel Studios

16 Feb 2018

Other

Every spear raised, every gun drawn, every drop of blood spilled in Marvel Studios' dazzling, deeply-felt Black Panther stems from a single inciting incident. The film opens with a brief history lesson on Wakanda, Marvel's fantastical, technologically superior African nation, and then we flash back to a bloody betrayal in 1991 that sparks a decades-long vendetta that could mean the end of Wakanda -- and the modern world -- as we know it.

The flashback takes place in Oakland, California, which may seem like an unusual way to kick off a movie predominantly set on the other side of the world. If you've been following the career of filmmaker Ryan Coogler, however, the urban setting makes perfect sense. A Bay Area native, Coogler painted a striking picture of Oakland in his breathtaking debut feature, Fruitvale Station (2013), and he spotlights the city again in Black Panther because, well, he's just being true himself.

One of Coogler's greatest strengths as a filmmaker is that all of his work feels intensely personal. Fruitvale Station encapsulates the anxieties and dangers of being a young black man in the Bay, and his Rocky spinoff Creed captures the existential anguish of growing up without a father. Black Panther is, at its heart, keen insight into black identity and the African-American community's fractured relationship with its African roots.

There is great weight to the material -- one character mutters "they knew death was better than bondage" in reference to the Africans who jumped off of the first slave ships to their doom, which is one hell of a line to unpack -- but Coogler elegantly weaves these heavy threads into a larger film tapestry that is at once an action-packed superhero adventure, a sexy spy thriller, a palace intrigue drama, and a poignant tale about the pains and perils of leadership.

Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as T'Challa, who saw the death of his father, King T'Chaka (John Kani), as a result of a terrorist bombing during the events of Captain America: Civil War. We rejoin him as he makes his return to Africa to succeed his father both on the throne and as Wakanda's super-powered protector, the Black Panther. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but T'Challa seems ready to bear the weight -- he's a strong-minded, iron-willed, virtuous man who's hasn't got any glaring character flaws (another Marvel coming-of-age story this is not, thank goodness).

What T'Challa isn't ready for, however, is to pay the price for what his father did on that fateful night in Oakland. Underworld arms dealer and cackling brute Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, spluttering and delightfully cartoonish) serves as the story's initial antagonist, though his rage-filled, sharp-shooting cohort, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), has even greater bad-guy ambition, holding onto a dark secret that could destroy Wakanda from the inside out.

Helping T'Challa hunt them down are his dutiful allies: Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), an international superspy who also happens to be his ex-lover; Okoye (The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira), the ferocious head guard to the throne; and his little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda's lead tech designer and the Q to T'Challa's Bond. Martin Freeman plays Everett K. Ross, a government agent who finds himself unexpectedly entangled in Wakandan affairs, though he's eager to help (he acts as a proxy for white Americans comedically perplexed by black culture, though that's far from his defining characteristic).

More than almost any other solo MCU outing, Black Panther takes time to flesh out its entire ensemble, even going so far as to withdraw Boseman from the screen for a large chunk of the third act. Each character is clearly defined and carries their own quirks and senses of humor, and it's nice to see such care taken in the handling of the supporting players. Shuri loves playing pranks on T'Challa and playfully badgering him with smartass remarks, and their mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) keeps them in line while also lifting their spirits. More importantly, the women in this movie are varied, complex, and have real impact on the story, and none of them fall into the "badass chick" caricature that's plagued modern movies for too long. They're strong people to be sure, but they've got their own weaknesses and unique worldviews, too.

The popular criticism levied at Marvel Studios is that their villains lack depth and resonance, but to this attack this film stands as impervious as Black Panther's bulletproof suit. Killmonger is a fascinating representation of the consuming hatred that can build in those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, and forgotten, and he's as much a window into Coogler's worldview as T'Challa is. Jordan's performance is electrifying (this marks the third-straight time the actor-director duo have worked together, and with hope, it won't be the last), though Boseman's just as riveting and in no way gets overshadowed.

Intimate character moments most vividly showcase Coogler's strengths as a director, but he proves to be deft with big-budget action as well. During the first hour the story hops over to Busan, South Korea, for an exhilarating car chase that sees T'Challa and Okoye mounting speeding cars as if they were runaway zebra, barrelling through the crowded city streets as Klaue blows their metal steeds to bits with his weaponized arm, having a laugh all the while. The action is fast and brutal, and while none of the set pieces are exactly groundbreaking, they're unique enough to deflect any "seen this before" complaints.

The film's visual style isn't quite like anything we've ever seen because Coogler isn't quite like any other filmmaker. He's got a unique vision, and as a result, much of the movie looks like it could be the cover art for an underground hip-hop album from the '90s. Dark caves are illuminated by the green and purple glow of magical flowers, bringing to mind A Tribe Called Quest's "The Low End Theory"; Wakanda is a wondrous mashup of African wildlife, urban environments, and shiny-future sci-fi, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the artwork for Outkast's "ATLiens" and "Aquemini". None of Marvel Studios' movies are lacking in visual flourish, but this one's got a flavor all its own.

Black Panther is to superhero movies what Get Out is to horror movies. It's a story for black people, from a black person's perspective, and unapologetically so. That's not to say that it's an exclusive experience -- this is a decidedly inclusive movie that shines a spotlight on a culture that we rarely get to see on this kind of platform and on this scale. Coogler is one of the most exciting young filmmakers we've seen in a long time, and as long as he continues to tell his truth, he's going to go on to have a magnificent career and help bring the black community the representation its long been due, to the benefit and enlightenment of us all.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.