'Black Panther' has become a phenomenon. Coming from nowhere to secure the second-largest opening weekend in US box-office history (behind only 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'), this Marvel Universe entry more than doubled the pre-release tracking numbers and has become a cultural touchstone in just days. It cements the fact that, following the success of 'Wonder Woman' last year, genre movies can and should be inclusive of people that aren't your standard stereotypical "comic book" geeks. It is a movie with meaningful subtext, superb actors, and an exciting young director. It is also a film that falls into the same Marvel traps that have plagued much of the series, and one that I feel could have been so much more.
'Black Panther' tells the tale of T'Challa, prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, who returns home to take his rightful place as king after his father's assassination (as seen in 'Captain America: Civil War'). T'Challa, as king and as the Black Panther, is tested when he's drawn into a conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Now, don't get me wrong - 'BP' is filled with conflict, and action, and memorable characters. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, especially, shine as the title character and the villain, Killmonger. They do wonderous things with two of the most well-developed characters yet to be spit out of the Marvel factory. Their motivations are true and resonant, and they are, by far, the highlights of the movie.
The action, though, is where the movie breaks down for me. This film seems to have taken on the 'Fast and the Furious' logic of "Physics? We don't need no stinkin' physics!" While comic book films often require a suspension of disbelief, this one takes it too far. There is a car chase that, honestly, is just terribly confusing and dissonant, as opposed to exciting. T'Challa's 16-year-old sister fills the "Q" role from the Bond movies so fully that I could only think of it as a rip-off. The tech she comes up with, like a kinetic-energy absorbing suit, works only when it is convenient to the plot and is often ignored for dramatic reasons. I also found the action scenes ugly and suffering from spotty CG, like a final pass hadn't been done on some of the shots. It still amazes me that 'Jurassic Park' came out in 1993 and is sports the best CGI ever.
Redeeming 'BP,' however, is the political and cultural subtext that has been baked in so expertly. The horrors of colonialism, slavery, classism, and racism are subtly, but effectively, woven through the plot, giving real weight and meaning to the comic-book goings-on. Yes, there are some problems (Wakanda is socially forward and modern, but the king can be overthrown through a street fight?), but once you realize that, for instance, the final battle is happening on a literal underground railroad, those slight missteps are easily forgiven. Killmonger's last line is also masterful, as is the denoument, a perfect bow back at the basketball court (you'll know it when you see it).
Director Ryan Coogler is a talent to pay attention to, having delivered 'Fruitvale Station' and 'Creed' before jumping into the stratosphere with 'BP.' He and 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' director Rian Johnson are two exciting filmmakers with unique visions who have shaken up the film culture this year, delivering movies that challenge norms and polarize in the best ways possible.
Did I love 'Black Panther?' No. Is it overhyped? Probably. But I'm perfectly ok with that, if its profound success allows directors, actors, and fans who have, for too long, been left out of the blockbuster business to find a place at the table. The crowd at the screening I attended was probably the most diverse I've ever been a part of at a film, and that, ultimately, will be this film's legacy.