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.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    great review. nice work.