Review: 'Black Panther' departs from superhero cliches

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/20/18 1:10am

There is an old truism that posits that the best superhero films are those that first and foremost aim to be different. For instance, it is often argued that a film like “The Dark Knight” is a cut above other Batman movies because it is constructed as a gritty crime drama, not a superhero adventure flick. While statements like this occasionally rankle die-hard comic book fans, I think it really just speaks to the utterly arbitrary nature of the superhero genre label. Consider that both “The Punisher” and “The Incredibles” are both typically classified as superhero films even though they have next to nothing in common.

My point is this: Black Panther is, perhaps more than any other mainstream comic book film, a story about a “superhero” that manages to evade the structural trappings of that genre as much as possible. To be clear, that is intended as a compliment. Writer and director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have crafted a script which doesn’t eschew all of the old tropes found in other superhero movies but rather reincorporates them into a new framework. This isn’t the story about a man learning how best to use his exceptional gifts to help mankind. Instead, it is a deeply personal family drama about loyalty, fraternity, isolationism and honor wrapped up in potent political commentary.

In an article for The Atlantic, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, the current writer for the Marvel “Black Panther” comic book series, mentions that one of the central question he aims to tackle with his take on the series is: “Can a good man be a king?” It’s clear that the filmmakers have taken this question to heart. Around it, they have constructed a narrative which examines the responsibilities of an African monarch in a world built on colonialism and exploitation of African peoples and nations. More importantly, they don’t make these sociopolitical ideas esoteric or distant; rather, they are visceral, embodied by characters with genuine motivations and backstory.

Shortly after the death of his father, T’Challa returns to his homeland of Wakanda for his coronation so he can take up the mantle of the Black Panther. Wakanda is a thriving Afrofuturist-inflected country hidden from the rest of the world and disguised as an impoverished third world nation. Its success and subsequent ability to evade the horrors of colonialism are due in large part to its access to Vibranium, the fictional world’s most versatile metal.

The plot begins when T’Challa has an opportunity to intercept and capture South African arms dealter Ulysses Klaue in Busan, South Korea. Klaue has some less than pleasant history with Wakanda, and his scheme eventually leads T’Challa to face Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a U.S. black-ops soldier with a mysterious grudge against T’Challa.

It would be irresponsible of me to review “Black Panther” without first mentioning its continued importance for black representation in mainstream media. As Coates noted, “Black Panther’s” comic debut in 1966 made him “the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.” No, it’s not the first superhero film with a black lead, but it is the first one to thoroughly foreground its black identity. It doesn’t just pay lip-service to a host of pertinent sociopolitical concerns. It makes its examination of colonialism and its many nasty reverberations central to the main conflict.

Indeed, much of the film is so compelling because the disagreement between T’Challa and Killmonger is so engaging. Both are admirable yet flawed and the distinction between them is vividly realized: Killmonger’s myopic desire for revenge has transformed him into the sort of colonialist he hates whereas T’Challa understands that one must be willing to move beyond the past and pay attention to the future.

Of course, it helps that both of these characters are so well-acted. Michael B. Jordan brings real humanity to Killmonger, making him possibly the most compelling villain in any Marvel Studios film to date. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa is less showy and more understated, becoming the bedrock for this intricate plot. Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett also make the most of small parts while Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as the fish-out-of-water Central Intelligence Agency Agent Everett Ross. The real scene stealers, though, are the powerful, intelligent, witty, complex and fully-rounded trio of female characters who advise T’Challa and keep him in check: his wisecracking sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his loyal bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his ex-girlfriend and spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). To determine which one steals the show most is a genuinely impossible task.

The film is also gorgeous to watch. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is “epic” in the best sense of that word, capturing sweeping vistas and stunning landscapes. Likewise, some of the action scenes are filmed with a real sense of visceral brutality. A pair of hand to hand fights next to a waterfall are legitimately painful to watch. Other action scenes, particularly parts of the final showdown, are a little pedestrian. That said, I can’t complain too much given that these moments aren’t ever really the focus of the film.

“Black Panther” isn’t perfect. The first half-hour or so feels like an extended yet entertaining prologue and some of the character arcs feel more developed than others. That said, there’s an approximately hour-long stretch in the middle of the film where the titular superhero never appears in costume. The fact that I was never bored during this section is a good sign. The fact that I thought it was the best stretch of the film speaks volumes as to why “Black Panther” is one of the best superhero films in the genre.