Glowing Blue Core Alert: Spoilers Ahead.
The Marvel cinematic universe has deeply altered the expectations of ticket purchasers in the last decade or so, who have come to expect a certain pedigree from their comic-turned-movie viewing experience, something above the dollar store quality of the Blade franchise, more satisfying than dumpster dives like Batman vs. Superman. Let me start this review by telling you that yes, when you see Black Panther you won’t leave the theater hungry, but fully satisfied, and not from the $7 box of Junior Mints that you could have gotten at that dollar store for two Washingtons.
Allow me to continue this culinary line of thought and tell you that there isn’t a reason (singular) Black Panther succeeds at the dozens of avenues it attempts to navigate in its two hours and twenty minutes – it accomplishes almost everything it sets out to achieve, despite the incredibly challenging amount of ingredients that its chef, director Ryan Coogler, works with. We’re not talking dorm room casserole, more of a fine jambalaya only found in the French Quarter. Black Panther spins many plates, some subtly and briefly, others continuously throughout a perpetually exploding visual template. Coogler is a contestant in a cinematic episode of “Chopped,” his basket a sinister mix of elements, some that work together without thought and some that conflict (but you wouldn’t know it from the end result). His sous chefs range from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with their ancient herbs, to new elements like Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Dana Gurira. Toss into this recipe some aspects that lay somewhere in the middle like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker and you can understand why Black Panther isn’t just about one definition of diversity.
Black Panther doesn’t translate as a superhero movie, if we’re sticking to the traditional definition. Yes, it’s a Marvel movie, containing costumes and futuristic tech, with humans that have been modified to exhibit extraordinary abilities. But the end result on the big screen doesn’t rely on that to fuel the vehicle, allowing instead for its engine to rely on the piston fire of questions and dilemmas that are both ages old and currently struggled with. Loyalty to a nation despite a troubled leader, the appropriate level of balance between technology and cultural tradition, the merits of a society that allows refugees into its fold versus the potential changes that particular humanitarian decision might bring. Just a few of the topics Black Panther alternately grazes and hits the viewer with head on. Not to mention the subtle way it displays the nation of Wakanda as being shaped but not entirely changed through time by African slavery, colonial imperialism, and world war.
The other way Black Panther differentiates itself from the traditional Marvel film is in how much of its substance focuses on these issues that surround its star, and not as much on the hero himself. Chadwick Boseman performs as well as you’d hope, but as the film progresses, you’re left more and more with the impression that, as a viewer, you’ve been let in on an individual’s progression more than his reaction; observing the elements affecting our hero more than the choices he decides to make. I struggle with the idea that this is a desired effect from Coogler – I think that’s open for debate, but it’s pretty obvious that T’Challa is being portrayed more as a man than a “super man,” a hero for what he struggles to moralize and understand than for how many baddies he kicks in the dick. They’re polar opposites in terms of the theatrical tone Marvel takes, but there are moments where there’s more Deadpool (if ONLY in terms of his own struggle with his humanity) in this version of T’Challa than there is any other variant of now Disney-owned superhero. At times T’Challa’s antagonist almost takes over more than the nation of Wakanda, threatening to steal the actual spotlight of the film. It’s hard to say whether that’s by design, or another example of our hero being humanized, or the fact that Michael B. Jordan just has that kind of power on the screen, regardless of his role. I left the theater feeling that Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa, and both are humble in ways, but the more complex situation I pose isn’t far from the truth.
At its core, Black Panther is a treat for the senses, at times a puzzle for the heart, and a film that breaks barriers in more ways than the obvious. It’s a fantastic addition to the Marvel canon, but as such leaves more questions than answers. Captain America, upon choosing his first shield, asks in The First Avenger why such a device isn’t standard issue for all general infantry and is told “That’s the rarest metal on earth. What you’re holding there, that’s all we’ve got.” That metal, vibranium, is at the very core of everything we’re told Wakandan infrastructure, technological superiority, and even clothing is, and at one point an extended fight scene between Black Panther and Killmonger literally features the two in freefall, punching each other, for more than ten seconds, in a massive cave of nothing but vibranium.
I’d ask what this means to Captain America, or what this will mean to the Marvel universe. There are a lot of questions we’re left with after watching Black Panther, not from confusion but from curiosity. And after the movie ends and our traditionally tasty post-credits Marvel treat is fed to us we add one more. “What the hell is Bucky doing in Wakanda, and how is he the White Wolf?” All in all Black Panther leaves me with one question above all the rest.