Black Panther review: Ryan Coogler pounces on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther
Chadwick Boseman IS Black Panther!

When directors with distinct sense of humor do Marvel movies, they get more attention for putting their stamp on it. When a director’s specialty is character drama, it may float under the radar. Ryan Coogler gets those moments out of Black Panther, and the rest of the Marvel formula remains intact.

Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is stealing vibranium artifacts from around the world, and only the new king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), can stop him. Klaue has help from Eric Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), aka Killmonger, who’s gunning for T’Challa himself.

T’Challa vs. Killmonger

Black Panther is way better when it’s about the royal family than when it’s about the vibranium Maguffin mission. The family is unique to Black Panther. Any of the Avengers could chase Klaue and Killmonger for the vibranium.

The script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole touches on big issues. Killmonger’s plan ties into black oppression around the world. He wants to arm his fellow revolutionaries, which I can imagine many frustrated people agreeing with in today’s climate. Nelson Mandela would probably have advised against that approach though.

Even when you land in Wakanda, you still have to wait for a gate.

To me, Black Panther looks the same as every other Marvel movie. Wakanda is all green screen, although if every movie is green screen now perhaps it’s significant that they’ve at least created an Africa-inspired green screen background.

I thought the joy of seeing comic books brought to life was to see them occur in live action, not just actors against digital panels. For kids who grew up with this as the standard look of blockbuster movies, the landmark of representation will mean more than lamenting the days of location photography.

Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Florence Kasumba are Wakandan warriors.

I do hope the cliffs full of Wakandan tribes, with all their different and brightly colored wardrobe, were real extras. I’d give them that. That’s a whole lot of people to dress up in distinct tribal gowns crafted solely for this film.

Shuri (Letitia Wright) makes all of T’Challa’s cool gadgets and costumes.

As far as landmark superhero movies for underrepresented groups go, I don’t think Black Panther has anything as monumental as Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land sequence where she defies the patriarchy and introduces herself on the battlefield.

Maybe the challenge for the throne was that sequence here. Honestly, the existence of the movie is the No Man’s Land sequence, so baby steps.

The Fast and the Furious: T’Challa Drift

The action mostly falls into the standard Marvel pattern. Coogler crafts a tracking shot in a casino fight, and there’s a cool car chase in Busan with purple lights. It’s no Furious 7 but it’s at least a 2 Fast 2 Furious.

The battle finale is the same structure of three fights crosscut at the same time, but again it’s three simultaneous battles featuring African characters so that’s significant. We don’t get to see that every summer, and we should.

The badass women of Wakanda

At least the action is full of badass women, both warriors and geniuses. It’s the whole kingdom. Everyone is an important character. Those characters have real moments at the end of the battles, and those are more captivating than the usual choreography and CGI. I hope people notice how much drama Coogler got out of Black Panther the way they notice Thor: Ragnarok is so funny.

Winston Duke as Jabari leader M’Baku

Any quibbles I have are just Marvel being Marvel. They’re not going to reinvent the formula, but they gave their flagship black superhero the same treatment they gave obscure characters like Ant-Man and Groot. Now I hope cool parents will show their kids Blade too.

Black Panther opens February 16 in theaters.

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