I loved The Avengers when it first came out in 2012 (https://film-prof.com/2012/05/14/the-avengers/) for how well it answered the many challenges of a first superhero franchise film. But Black Panther may well be the best Marvel film yet. It’s gorgeous to look at, well acted (surprisingly so in some instances), and manages to handle its many problems presented by an overstuffed origin story as deftly as The Avengers did six years ago. In addition to the look and the acting, the film owes a significant thanks to its effects crew, an intelligent use of reverb at powerful moments, and of course, personal trainers.
The origin story has depth, and while the plot itself is negligible and centered around a classic McGuffin, the film presents places and characters that work in a standalone film while laying the groundwork for follow-up Panther films, as well as integrating these characters into the rest of the Marvel universe.
At least for me, the film began a bit shakily as one of my favorite actors, Sterling K. Brown, was offered in something of a punk/street persona. Didn’t work for me at all, and was the first time I was disappointed in seeing him on the screen. He’s a great actor (and I use that term precisely), but his persona as the nice guy is perhaps a bit too strong to accept him in the role he has here.
Fortunately, that was not the case with the many other actors that inhabit the film. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up, Marshall) finally steps out of his biopics and easily slips on the persona of the mythical earthly king (T’Challa) and superhero (Black Panther). Boseman has a dignity and regal bearing that combine with his natural talents to make a believable character. It’s true his rather recessive screen personality tends to be overpowered by the electric presence of the villain, played by Michael B. Jordan (Creed), who could have easily stepped into Boseman’s shoes. But that would have created another dynamic entirely. Boseman doesn’t break through the screen as Jordan does, but he carries the weight of the film easily on his broad and highly exercised shoulders.
What the film contains in terms of its presentations of African-Americans and strong women is beyond the scope of this analysis. But two things: Wakanda is a magnificent place that is both fantasy and something of a cinematic affirmation of black history and culture; that’s a tough thing to pull off, and the film does it well. Its strong women, too, are not called attention to as exceptions, but are a logical part of the film’s landscape, going far beyond the “I am woman, hear me roar” presentations of other films, and simply presenting these warriors and leaders as part of the fabric of life. There might be other recent films that call such attention to what they are doing in the name of diversity and inclusion that they forget narrative, drive, energy, and cinematic skill. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.
The cast is large, and the film could easily have broken down under the weight of the many faces and the necessity of giving life to them all. It doesn’t. The commitment and talent of each actor is part of the reason, and the film places characters before plot, giving the viewer ample time to get a sense of each personality.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is third-billed, but in many ways, this is her film. She is strong most of the time (without trying to be), focused all of the time, and relational and romantic at just the right moments. She bears a good deal of credit for the film’s success. Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) has the difficult task of playing a female warrior that has to be a fighting machine while still being a believable person facing believable conflicts. Perhaps it was because of the arc of his character and (spoiler alert) what he ends up doing in the film, but Daniel Kaluuya is less impressive than he was in Get Out. His character seems less focused and credible, and he was less than an ideal match for his character.
On the other hand, Angela Bassett is perfectly cast as T’Challa’s mother, and finally fills her performance with poise and regal strength without the edge of anger she often brings to her roles. Motion-capture legend Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films) throws himself—perhaps too much—in the role of a classic bad guy, but he certainly provides the film with energy. Lastly (for here and now), Brit Martin Freeman (Sherlock and the Hobbit films) nails an American accent and brings his warmth and sympathetic person to a complicated character, adding a welcome layer to an already complex, rich film.
The visuals in the film are stunning. That includes the special effects, which are both eye-popping and beautiful, and are quickly made of a piece with the whole look of the film—not just there for the occasional wow factor. The sets, the costumes, the cinematography are all impressive but again, are so very well integrated into the whole look of the film that you can’t consider them separately. Director Ryan Coogler, who had been known for smaller and more independent style work in Fruitvale Station and Creed, manages to mix the various ingredients of a blockbuster in a way that brings together performances, story, a massive cast, and a breathtaking look into a single cohesive film that also happens to be greatly entertaining. It’s been offered that the film is so complicated that it needs a second look to understand it all. For this writer, the film is worthy of a second and third look for its beauty and distinction alone.