Hey! I’m gonna try to start doing movie reviews again. And what better place to start than the most talked-about movie of the season, Marvel’s Black Panther? The latest superhero blockbuster from Disney is an instant smash, with fans and critics alike lauding it as a bold new step forward for the company and another phenomenal notch on director Ryan Coogler’s increasingly-impressive belt. Does it live up to the hype?
Well, not exactly. To be fair, with hype like that, how could it? It’s definitely one of the finest movies in the MCU, and it’s easy to see why everyone’s creaming their collective jeans over it, but it’s not without its flaws. I think you’ll enjoy this movie most if you don’t go in with any expectations; if you’re expecting a bold, subversive masterpiece, that’s not quite what you’re gonna get. What you will get is a really cool, well-made, intriguing, but relatively straightforward action movie.
To be clear though, I love this movie. Killmonger is streets ahead of every other villain in Marvel history, and T’Challa may be the most interesting hero we’ve seen from them in quite a while. Marvel heroes thus far have generally fallen into four archetypes: cocky smart-ass, bewildered everyman, gentle giant, or sexy assassin. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa doesn’t really fall into any of those categories. In moments of action, you could probably swap him out for any other superhero, but his character has some interesting layers: he’s wise and composed, but not always sure of himself. He’s a young man put in charge of an entire nation, torn between his nation’s past and future. Similarly, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger goes above and beyond Marvel’s standard villain fare: even though his plan ultimately is to use a magic rock to take over the world, his motivations run much deeper, and there are definitely points in the movie where you feel he’s kinda right.
The other stand-out character in the movie is Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s tech genius younger sister who’s hip on what all the kids are into, like the totally timely “what are those” meme. To be fair, that moment is probably the funniest thing in the entire movie. Wright brings a magnetic charm to her portrayal of the character, no doubt a future Marvel fan favorite (consider: an animated Disney princess movie with her in the lead role). Unfortunately, not many of the other characters live up to these three. Lupita Nyong’o feels tragically underused, Andy Serkis is sort of lame as a secondary villain, Angela Bassett was great to see but didn’t add much, and Forest Whitaker played the exact same character he played in Rogue One.
Now, this is a very character-driven movie, but there’s other things to admire about it as well. It’s visually stunning, going above and beyond Coogler’s previous films with tremendous uses of color and cinematography. It also carries a lot more intrigue than a lot of other Marvel films. Other than the Captain America trilogy, Marvel tends to shy away from political fare, but where the Cap films tend towards full-on political thriller, Black Panther deftly balances serious intellectual debate with Marvel action sensibilities. In that sense, it’s similar to Wonder Woman, though it edges that film out mainly in the ways that the Marvel formula trumps the DC formula.
That being said, Black Panther falls a bit flat when it gets too Marvel-y. The action scenes are really cool in the beginning, but dry up a bit in the middle and lean towards full-on sloppiness by the climax. The rushed final battle is the clearest sign of studio interference in the film, and it doesn’t do a particularly good job resolving anything. Also, the CGI is weirdly bad? Like, there are a lot of moments in this movie that look like they belong in one of the Star Wars prequels, or the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, not a Marvel movie in 2018. Given that the film had a higher budget than Thor: Ragnarok, there are a number of ways in which it feels bizarrely low-budget. On top of the CG, there’s the fact that it keeps returning to the same few sets, like the Phantom Menace-esque throne room or Shuri’s sparsely-furnished laboratory.
But that’s just the bad stuff. Another great thing about this movie is the score. Composer Ludwig Göransson elevates the sound of the film above standard Marvel fare with his unique ear for production, incorporation of African musical cues, and recalling films like The Lion King, which the movie pays deliberate homage to on several occasions. Adding to the sound of the film is Kendrick Lamar, who offered up a whole album’s worth of original songs (maybe four of which are actually in the movie).
All in all, Black Panther feels like a comic book in a way no movie in the MCU has before it. It’s got vivid characters and worldbuilding, stylish visuals, it’s got real intrigue without taking itself too seriously, and it rolls at a deliberate yet feverish pace. I’d give it a solid A-. It’s probably not the absolute best Marvel movie, but it’s way up there.