In the unlikely even there were a few outliers who still doubted the enormous scope — and corresponding influence — of the extended exercise in filmmaking known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the recently released “class photo” should have put things decisive perspective. The official ten-year anniversary of Iron Man clanking onto screens for the first time will be marked, almost to the day, by the next Avengers movie. But Black Panther may be a more fitting measure of how far the studio has come in its improbable journey.
In its first decade as the decision-makers behind which properties are transferred to the screen — and how precisely the characters are interpreted — Marvel has taken some justified guff for leaning on white male protagonists, even as the opportunity was there to easily add some diversity into the mix. At the very least, Scarlett Johansson’s take on Black Widow seems like as prime a contender for a solo outing as any of the other characters who’ve been given a name-in-the-title showcase for the last five years or so. Given that progression, the arrival of Black Panther has loomed large since it was promised as part of Marvel’s long-range promotional forecasting.
Bearing an added social weight that no movie should have to bear, Black Panther meets the most joyously hopefully expectations and comes close to exceeding them. Wisely, director Ryan Coogler (who is co-credited on the screenplay, with Joe Robert Cole) sets aside the increasingly prevalent trend of mixing and matching the various action figures of the Marvel Universe to concentrate on heavy-duty world-building within the title character’s home nation of Wakanda.
Chadwick Boseman has already been introduced as African royalty T’Challa, who dons a costume to strive for justice as the Black Panther. While Boseman doesn’t bring much more to the character than the bright charisma he displayed in Captain America: Civil War, the actor has enviable ease in front of the camera, generating automatic intimacy in every scene. There’s a certain generosity to the performance, as well. While I haven’t done the math, I suspect Black Panther introduces more significant new characters than any Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy. Boseman leans back and leaves room for other actors (Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Winston Duke are all marvelous), operating with the confidence of king. To be fair, he may also be conserving his energy so he’s prepared to share the screen with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler’s favorite actor who is given the gift of the strongest villain role in the MCU to date. With no slight to Boseman, it’s reasonable to assume that Jordan would have been Coogler’s first choice for Black Panther, but Eric “Killmonger” Stevens is a solid consolation prize.
Coogler works with his team to bring a remarkable amount of lovely, inventive craft to the movie. The art direction, costume design, and cinematography (by Mudbound Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) are all exemplary. And there’s an admirable attempt to introduce slightly more nuanced geopolitical motivations into the traditional tussle of good and evil. Even with all those layered components, Coogler also takes advantage of the freewheeling possibilities within this sprawling fictional world of superpowered beings to get exuberantly playful in his storytelling. In the middle of everything, Coogler delivered a stealth Marvel version of a James Bond movie, and it’s flat-out wonderful.
Years ago, I wrote a generous, positive review for a Robert Townsend movie called The Meteor Man, in which he played an inner city superhero. Although I didn’t have the ideal terminology to express the viewpoint at the time, I explicitly championed the film in part because I recognized that representation matters. The same concept factors into the impact of Black Panther. It doesn’t erase some of the usual middling issues that come with most superhero movies, like the little plot holes that exceed reasonable suspension of disbelief or the still nearly-inevitable moments when the action devolves into a digitally rendered beehive of indiscernible kinetic hash. But it does give the moments of stirring heroism an added emotional heft.
In its cinematic fundamentals, Black Panther is among the upper tier of Marvel movies. In the manner in which it meets its greater, grander demands, it is something more. Simply put, it matters.