Superhero movies are no longer events. They’re routine, as expected as the sun rising and setting, and considerably less beguiling because their narrative and box-office formulas, unlike a literal force of nature, hold little room for surprise. There’s too much money at stake. There are too many on-screen personalities and off-screen demographics to placate. Prepare for sabotage by alt-right dudebros or death by woke think piece, and sink into the social media cacophony of shouts and murmurs, sound and fury—all of it, yes, signifying nothing. Leeched of much of anything challenging, and bled dry by a vampiric commentariat (though still breaking bank on opening weekend), the film itself is ultimately beside the point. Bury the exsanguinated corpse in the virtual Netflix graveyard. Then, move on to the next victim.
A conundrum though: What to do when there’s obvious artistry in one of these vacuous behemoths? Say, Loki getting Hulk-smashed in The Avengers, or Wonder Woman rising toward the camera in all her Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL-scored glory during the climactic battle of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Up to now, such moments have been diamonds in the rough, few and very far between. Let’s acknowledge, too, that they’re a low bar by which to judge real genius, cinematic or otherwise. Now we can take some small pleasure in what director Ryan Coogler achieves with Black Panther.
This is a Marvel Studios production first and foremost, and you’re never going to forget it in light of the pro forma plotting, CG sturm und drang, and gratuitous Stan Lee cameo. Yet the external pressures surrounding the film—chiefly its status as the superhero flick involving and revolving around people of color—have kept the bean counters somewhat at bay. That, plus the fact that Coogler, who penned the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, is able to give many things here that impassioned, obsessional tinge required of memorable, if not always masterful, art. This is apparent from scene one, a lovingly crafted animated prologue in which N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) narrates the history of the fictional, scientifically advanced African nation of Wakanda, in addition to explaining the origins of vibranium, the metal that has allowed his people to stay hidden in plain sight for generations. (It’s also, as comics fans know, the base element of Captain America’s whip-it-good! shield.)
Wakanda is an effective utopia, while the rest of the world is beset by war, famine, poverty, and other ills; the great sin of slavery is glancingly referenced by N’Jobu, yet its damning, deleterious effects linger and resonate in how the story plays out. It’s clear that Coogler is more in charge than most Marvel hirelings when he smash-cuts from this fantastical opening to a basketball court in Oakland, California circa 1992. The sudden verisimilitude doesn’t feel faux, but lived-in. (Coogler is himself Oakland born and raised.)
While a group of boys shoots some hoops, an otherworldly drama plays out in a nearby apartment complex. It turns out that N’Jobu is in self-exile because of his disgust at Wakanda’s non-interventionist policies. Why should they harbor state-of-the-art technology while others (those with dark skin, especially) suffer at the hands of myriad oppressors? T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), N’Jobu’s brother and Wakanda’s king, finds his alienated sibling, brands him a traitor, and, in a heated moment, kills him. In the present day, this sin of the father comes back to haunt both men’s children: T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the eponymous hero, who’s next in line to rule Wakanda, and N’Jobu’s offspring, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who’s out for vengeance and his own chance at sovereignty.
There’s a narrative lopsidedness to Black Panther that sharply undercuts Killmonger’s emotional journey.
The first section of Black Panther traces T’Challa’s ascent to the throne after the death of his father (who was murdered in Captain America: Civil War), as well as Killmonger’s exploits in the company of the demented, mechanical-armed mercenary Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “Claw” and played by a non-motion-captured Andy Serkis). Coogler immerses us in the arcadian sights and sounds of Wakanda, which counts characters portrayed by a dream cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Isaach de Bankolé among its many residents. And he has just as much fun with the James Bond-ian derring-do of the Klaue plotline, which culminates in a South Korea-set casino standoff/car chase. It’s an imaginatively visualized sequence, featuring a splendid sight gag involving the remnants of a wrecked vehicle screeching to a halt. And it’s a terrific showcase for two scene-stealers: the spear-wielding female bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and T’Challa’s smart-ass, tech-savvy sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).
“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” says Shuri to white C.I.A. operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), whose hilariously befuddled reaction just about encapsulates the centuries-long absurdities (and accompanying horrors) of subjugating others based on their skin color. It’s evident that Coogler is attempting to use Marvel’s galaxy-guarding template against itself, and not just to address the immoral disparities of race, but also the ruinous civil wars that can erupt within an exploited and persecuted community. The Wakandans’ decision to hide from the world rather than work to better it is ultimately an act of cowardice. Killmonger is the flesh-and-blood result, a take-no-prisoners antagonist with a more-than-justifiable grievance against the society that quietly disavowed him. And Jordan—Coogler’s muse between this, Creed, and Fruitvale Station—plays the character with such moving, occasionally gut-wrenching commitment, as in a scene in which he visits his deceased father on the ancestral plane, that it nearly mitigates the goofiness of his moniker and the superficiality of the film in toto.
Could any film that features lumbering CGI rhinos and two guys duking it out in skin-tight wildcat costumes really bear the thematic weight for which Coogler strains? Never say never, but in this case—almost not quite. For all its delights of performance, production and costume design, and cinematography, there’s a narrative lopsidedness to Black Panther, one that sharply undercuts Killmonger’s emotional journey. His villainy crests slowly and crashes much too quickly; this is a case where an entire TV season might have leant some poignant and provocative layers to his character, though given Marvel’s dismal small-screen output, it’s more likely it would be a botch of a different sort. And for all of Boseman’s quick-witted charisma as T’Challa, he’s ultimately more of an in-motion action figure than a shades-of-gray superhuman, which puts him in lackluster line with the rest of the Marvel stable—soon to team up in Avengers: Infinity War.
The tension between commerce and craftsmanship is a key facet of American pop cinema. But as the budgets for blockbuster tentpoles have gotten larger and the projects more risk-averse (with Marvel Studios and its parent company, Walt Disney Pictures, as Exhibit A overlords of the trend) it’s become much too easy to acclaim fleeting inspiration and shallow gesturing toward diversity and goodwill as some kind of apogee. There is no doubt that Coogler makes the most that he can out of this property. And it’s more than certain that Black Panther will give audiences, especially underrepresented ones, a vision of themselves that Hollywood historically denies. And still the film seems, even at its best, like an apex of lowered expectations.