Ryan Coogler goes three-for-three with his defiant, stylish superhero epic.
RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)
This feels important.
As soon as Black Panther rolls its final credits (set to the indelible Kendrick Lamar/SZA collaboration “All the Stars”), you can’t help but feel, as film producer Jordan Horowitz noted, things have changed.
Indeed, things have changed, and a little more than 100 years after D.W. Griffith paraded the Ku Klux Klan around like show ponies in The Birth of a Nation, co-writer/director Ryan Coogler has directed a film so celebratory of its diversity and so rooted in a history so many conveniently forget, that it feels like both the opposite end of a long spectrum and a fantastic beginning for meaningful race and gender representation in quality cinema.
In a fractured racial society, a movie can only do so much – but progress is progress, and of all times, Black Panther couldn’t have arrived at a better one.
That’s a lot to put on a Marvel movie, but change can come in the most unexpected of vessels.
Just as Wonder Woman paved the way for studios greenlighting female-driven superhero films, Black Panther is going to change the way studios view films led by minority casts. With reviews what they are and box numbers tracking as they are, there will be no more excuses. Not only are films led by minority casts and crews of the highest quality, they are also astoundingly profitable. Black Panther should get the tides in motion. It’s about time.
But, it’s not just enough to provide representation – diverse audiences deserve high-caliber diverse entertainment. Coogler, already responsible for two of the decades’ better dramas in Fruitvale Station and Creed, takes command over the MCU here with a film dripping in love and confidence. The end product feels like a release, the build-up of years and years of potential just waiting to burst through for representational casting and storytelling. But, it’s also a breath of fresh air for the cinematic universe it’s set in – one that has developed a few bad habits over the years, and one that also needed a fresh perspective, and a divergence from the grander threads a play in the narrative.
The film picks up right where Captain America: Civil War left off, leaving T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) king of Wakanda, a thriving African nation hidden from the outside world and the scars that centuries of colonization and outside influence left on its continent. However, his ascension to the throne is fraught with its own perils – most notably driven by Erik Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-military operative with plans of his own for the nation. T’Challa must learn in his early days as king that even a place like Wakanda has made its mark on the outside world, and some of those marks may carry grave consequences for his rule.
Everything in Coogler’s film works. The electric ensemble plays the Shakespearean nature of the material well – the fraught dynamics of family and monarchy that made the Bard’s work so riveting get a Wakandan twist, anchoring one of the better Marvel plots in quite some time. Boseman’s already showed he’s got the chops to ground a film like this – his regal determination keeping T’Challa all at once formidable and human. His inventive sister Shuri (Letita Wright), fierce main general Okoye (Danai Gurira) and diplomatic ex-love/Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) give the film some of Marvel’s most dynamic women in quite some time. Andy Serkis never met a villain he didn’t relish playing, and Martin Freeman’s straight-shooting CIA operative enhances the story, rather than distract from it.
But, of the cast, it’s Michael B. Jordan, right? It’s got to be Michael B. Jordan.
Jordan, the unheralded force in Hollywood acting, gets his biggest stage to date, and he wastes no moment. As Killmonger, Jordan carries the weight of brokenness and revenge with a devious smile and hellbent rage. The actor’s ability to command a room is as potent as his ability to blend into the surroundings – few actors possess that range, but Jordan has it in full supply. The moral complexity behind his character is not to be understated, nor is the uncanny nature of Jordan upstaging such an assembly as this whenever he’s on the screen. This should be obvious by now – this is the new movie star.
Coogler’s direction is firm and adventurous, and a powerhouse scene in a casino highlights his ability to stage one heck of a fight (Gurira gets her best moments there). His crew – from the sweeping cinematography of Rachel Morrison to the percussion-heavy themes of composer Ludwig Göransson and the gorgeous, vibrant costume design from Ruth E. Carter – nary hits a misstep. It’s as handsomely crafted a film as has ever come from Marvel.
Any problems feel nitpicky. Like any Marvel film, pacing issues creep in here and there, as does an over-reliance on CGI. But, in a film as confident and resonant as this, it really doesn’t matter all that much.
Black Panther isn’t just one of 2018’s cinematic events and a crowning jewel in the Marvel lineage – it’s the future, the way forward for a more responsible film industry, a beautiful future for more representation in front of and behind the camera in all types of movies – one we should all embrace, cherish and continue to fight for.
Black Panther begins playing in theaters across Nashville Thursday evening. Tickets are on sale now at various locations.