Film Review: ‘Black Panther’ is a fresh superhero film with well-defined heroes and villains

black panther
Courtesy of Center for the Study of Race and Democracy

Since the early 2000s, the superhero genre has taken theaters and the box office by storm. One would think by now that this genre, lucrative though it may be, would have grown stale over the years. Yet, many of these films, whether a standalone, a sequel or a piece in a much larger cinematic puzzle, have brought something new to the table and injected freshness into the stories being told.

Marvel begins its 2018 run with its latest installment in the MCU, “Black Panther,” a film that does just that. Directed by Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” follows the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must take the mantle as king of Wakanda — a technologically advanced nation — after his father T’Chaka (John Kani) dies. When Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an antagonist with a personal vendetta surfaces, T’Challa must defend his country — and the rest of the world — and learn what it means to be a king.

Hands down, the best thing about “Black Panther” is the film’s stellar cast. Chadwick Boseman was a highlight during “Civil War,” and he brings it once again as T’Challa, offering a character with calm charisma. However, the people who stole the show for me were Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and science prodigy, and Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Wright is equal parts brilliant and witty, her dialogue delivery blunt, snappy and full of truth. Her contributions to T’Challa’s mission, both technologically and emotionally, are invaluable, making her magnetic to watch. Before I touch on Jordan, I also want to comment on the other badass women in this film, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira as Nakia and Okoye, respectively. These Wakandan warriors take center stage almost as much as Boseman, and their fight sequences were some of the better ones in the film.

Jordan represents a rare occurrence for an MCU film: a well-defined villain. The mark of a good antagonist is one that we can understand, maybe even sympathize with. His reasons for confronting T’Challa make sense — and heartbreakingly so. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a superhero villain with fleshed-out motivations. I’m happy to see Jordan break the mold.

This connects to one of the flaws I have with the film; I wish Jordan were in it a bit more. The first half of the film starts out a little slow, and I think part of that is because it takes awhile for Killmonger’s arc to intersect with the Wakandan characters’. He has a connection to the “Age of Ultron” antagonist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the latter of whom I felt could have been involved less in favor of giving Jordan more screen time. The second half of the film ramps up the intensity, but the pacing lags a bit in getting to that point.

I also found the editing in some of the fight sequences to be a little jerky. The quick cuts made it hard to focus on the characters, making their motions difficult to follow at times. The action is still fun to watch though, and I particularly enjoyed the fist-fight sequences — reminiscent of what Coogler did with 2015’s “Creed.” There are some great long takes as well, particularly when the characters fight in a casino.

Though there are plenty of action-packed, “heroic” moments like this in the film, one of the more striking things about “Black Panther” is that it’s really a drama disguised as a superhero film. It explores T’Challa’s relationship with his family and the Black Panthers who have come before him, offering a push and pull between tradition and adaptation. It is easily the most socially conscious superhero film, hitting on race relations — particularly through the eyes of Killmonger — and the consequences of a more advanced country isolating itself from the rest of the world, including those who may need help.

“Black Panther” illustrates the importance of diversity and inclusivity in front of and behind the camera. It tells a story about black people, told by black people, and in doing so, it offers an in-depth look at society while also delivering on heroes — both male and female — to root for and a villain we can understand. While it’s not perfect, it is immersive and proves that the superhero genre is anything but fatigued.

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