Released on Friday, the movie received the highest number of ticket presales of any MCU film. Director Ryan Coogler, having proven his prowess in creating successful franchise films with Creed three years ago, was tasked with creating a visceral experience in Black Panther. While he certainly displayed his distinct voice with the film’s narrative and themes, the movie also adheres too closely to the standard MCU format, with plenty of CGI-augmented fight sequences and a tidy resolution.
Chadwick Boseman delivers an exceptional performance as T’Challa, the protagonist and king of Wakanda. His calm yet stern demeanor is fitting, demonstrating his character’s inner conflicts as a ruler, and is a refreshing deviation from the typical quippy heroes of the past such as Captain America and Spider-Man. Opposite him is Michael B. Jordan as antagonist Erik Killmonger. His radical motivations to reveal Wakanda’s secrets to the world creates a powerful dynamic with T’Challa, as he challenges the king and forces Wakanda to consider providing resources to other nations. While this attribute propels him above most of Marvel’s disposable antagonists, Jordan doesn’t fully sink into his performance and fails to make Killmonger as devious and power-hungry as he could have been.
Their clash for the throne of Wakanda is beautifully presented, as Coogler pays incredible attention to detail when constructing his mise-en-scènes. Wakanda embodies Afrofuturism, seamlessly blending traditional African culture with futuristic technology, from the costumes and the make-up to the aircrafts and weapons.
Instead of trying to place the movie within the larger MCU, it spends its time crafting a self-contained drama that explores various social themes. The movie deals with isolationism to show the council trying to discuss Wakanda’s interactions with the rest of the world. The idea of false idols is also a major aspect to the story, as T’Challa’s perception of his father changes after darker secrets of his past are revealed, subsequently influencing his strategy as a ruler.
Unfortunately, the movie falters when it falls back into the tired tropes of the MCU and dwells within its cookie-cutter framework for superhero movies. When the film does cut to an action scene, it’s mostly uninteresting, as there’s no emotional impact to most punches or hits.
The scenes are mostly set in green screen environments filled with special effects that range from questionable to mediocre. The climactic battle is an exception, however, as the scene doesn’t clutter the space with so many vehicles or people to the point where the screen becomes a blur of imagery.
This final fight, however, is indicative of another one of the movie’s letdowns. Leading up to the ultimate conflict, many plot points feel rushed and are included only as an obligation to stick to the MCU’s tried-and-tested formula. Moments such as the rapid transition from T’Challa and Killmonger’s final battle to their emotional sunset don’t feel earned because the film doesn’t spend enough time building them up, although the attempt to highlight the undertones in their complicated family structure is valid.
One MCU cliche that Black Panther actually breaks away from maniefests itself within the music. Composer Ludwig Göransson, a long-time collaborator of Coogler, uses drums and vocals to create one of the MCU’s the most diverse and memorable scores.
With Kendrick Lamar serving as co-executive producer for Black Panther: The Album Music From and Inspired By, the accompanying album also impressed, due to standout features from heavyweights such as SZA and ScHoolboy Q. Spotlighting South African musicians such as Yugen Blakrok and Saudi, the soundtrack also contains a global flavor that meshes well with the movie’s landscape.
While Black Panther isn’t a perfect movie, the cultural and dramatic elements cement the film as one of MCU’s better installments. Not only does it add much-needed diversity to the Marvel franchise by highlighting a black superhero in an African utopia, but it also tackles important questions such as the proper balance between self-preservation and responsible outreach.
Wakanda serves an intriguing backdrop for the social commentary that transpires, as a society with the technology to end racial injustice around the globe, but chooses not to out of fear that their discovery will lead to exploitation, pointing to similar historical instances of colonization. From a filmmaking perspective, however, Black Panther has glimpses of greatness, but suggests that the MCU still has a ways to go if it wishes to elevate its storytelling beyond suits and spectacle.