There are too many superhero movies these days. Even with fresh attempts at the formula, such as “Deadpool,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” Marvel seems to be running out of steam as it approaches the release of the next Avengers film. But, despite the alarming amount of hype it’s received, “Black Panther” is actually worthy of the praise.
The film’s ability to leave audiences giddy with excitement without pandering is a testament to the talents of Ryan Coogler, the director also responsible for “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” By the time the futuristic aircraft fade off screen, it seems as if “Black Panther” is a better “Star Wars” movie than any of the recent “Star Wars” movies. The supporting cast has a significant role, but it entertains without stealing the show. The film’s setting and backstory is original and entirely separate from the rest of the Marvel movies, save Black Panther’s appearance in “Captain America: Civil War.” Black Panther’s gadgets and technology are impressive, and yet the battle between good and evil doesn’t feel like a one-sided power struggle.
The question with “Black Panther,” as it was with films like “Wonder Woman,” is whether the hype eclipses the film itself. The movie made over $200 million during President’s Day weekend, setting records at theaters across the country. A full-length album, overseen by Kendrick Lamar (who also makes a surprise cameo in the film), an aggressive marketing campaign, and the anticipation of an almost all-black cast are all reasons to be excited for this film. They are also talking points that distract from the movie itself.
Looking past the hype, it’s clear that Marvel and Disney aren’t just trying to profit from seeming #woke. There is a sincere effort to make an entertaining film here, with strong performances all around, from the title character to his intense female bodyguards.
Sure, there are some hiccups along the way. Andy Serkis’ role as bad guy Ulysses Klaue is much less significant than readers of the comics would expect, and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is so gangster it’s corny. Some of the CGI backdrops will not age well when future generations give this film a viewing. The movie sometimes seems more interested in its Afrofuturistic aesthetic than the story, yet it executes enough character development to stay on its feet.
“Black Panther” takes steps that black superhero movies like “Hancock” and “Blade” didn’t. The film offers a big budget depiction of good versus evil, with a positive role model for its target audience. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is a hybrid of Batman and Superman, a virtuous hero who relies mostly on gadgets. The movie pits him as a Martin Luther King Jr. figure against the Malcolm X philosophy of Killmonger. When Killmonger manages to take the throne by ritual combat, he reopens the debate between peaceful negotiation and violent revolution. Should Wakanda use its vibranium resources to arm oppressed people around the world, or should it restrain itself from interfering with other countries?
The home of the Black Panther, the African country of Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world, provides a backdrop to honest discussions about the oppression of black men and women and the proper response to it. Killmonger is numb to death after growing up in a harsh environment torn by conflict. His radical desire to overthrow governments by arming his people may go against the better judgment of T’Challa, but it demonstrates the difference in their experience.
T’Challa and the people of Wakanda have never experienced apartheid, racism, or oppression of any kind. Sheltered from the outside, they rarely venture out to assist in foreign conflicts. Killmonger’s perspective, while radical, is understandable because of his harsh upbringing and separation from Wakanda, his father’s home country. Where his cousin is reserved and cautious, Killmonger is aggressive and reckless.
By positioning T’Challa against Killmonger, Coogler does more than provide a thrilling superhero movie with a hat tip to his black audience members. This film is a celebration of African-American heritage, coupling awesome set pieces with social commentary that isn’t heavy-handed. With a strong supporting cast, a story that isn’t based on old tropes and gimmicks, and a fair share of great action scenes, Black Panther is wholeheartedly entertaining. And yes, it’s much better than those new “Star Wars” movies.