By Travis Trombley
Yet this movie manages to feel fresh, and not just because the skin color of its cast is a darker shade than that of its predecessors. Naye, it’s the quality of the script that stands out here. Recent installments like Doctor Strange, Spider-Man Homecoming, and Thor Ragnarok attempt to establish coherent themes, but faulty binaries and unearned character transitions undercut authenticity. Black Panther suffers no such stumbling block.
Characters in this film not only feel real in the sense that each sensibly belongs in this world, but they effectively weave a web of worldviews that breathe life into the action-packed exploration of personal morality at the heart of this film. It fulfills so well that unique role of the superhero story: to give arguments bodies so they can beat each other up. And this debate is indeed a joy to experience: narratively compelling, visually captivating, and surprisingly funny.
A King is Only as Good as His Court
In this, he’s shares much with another famous Marvel villain named Erik who survived a traumatic childhood only to adopt an extremist worldview that’s equal parts well-intended protectionist and violently retributive.
As an adult, Erik’s tears at this exchange betray his rage; he’s aware of what was stolen from him - not his dad, but his ability feel bad for his dad’s loss. It isn’t a person he hates, but a society of takers who, as he sees it, deserve the same treatment in return. Not unlike Magneto, he’s a monster who didn’t ask to be created, but he has no individual Dr. Frankenstein - that's just how it is (and that's perhaps the film's most powerful indictment). In a single scene the audience gets treated to such raw, unfair, and socially resonate tragedy that they can’t help but understand (if not sympathize with) the villain. Add the fact that this antagonist becomes an unmatched killer who poses a very real physical threat to the protagonist, and you get an A-list supervillain.
But as brilliant and compelling a villain as Killmonger is, he can’t claim sole responsibility for the film’s success. Rather, it’s the dynamic roster of characters like him by which Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole explore the film’s themes through a series of contrasts. Killmonger is but one node in a web of characters - a narrative tool employed in service of the grander story and the questions it asks: what do those with power owe to those without? What does it mean to be a person? A Good king? Are those identities mutually exclusive? How does one strike a balance between protection of self and protection of others, tradition and progress, revenge and justice?
And the keystone holding it all together is the titular character himself who must navigate these complexities as a new king. T’Challa begins the film defining a ‘good king’ as one who conserves Wakanda’s isolation from the rest of the world, but his utilitarian mindset also waivers before personal ethic. He chooses to save the life of Everett Ross, a CIA agent, by bringing him back to Wakanda despite his general’s protests concerning the threat to their nation’s secret. He later expresses categorical disagreement with his father’s choice to leave Erik in Oakland after he killed N’Jobu, Erik’s father and T’Chaka’s brother; “I chose Wakanda,” T’Chacka tells T’Challa. “You chose wrong,” T’Challa retorts.
Erik would see the oppressed of the world overthrow and replace their oppressors using Wakandan weapons with no thought to a sense of governance that would follow while his father advocated for a revolution led by Wakanda, which he saw as the shining city on a hill from which the world could be ruled justly. W’Kabi and Erik’s wolrdviews stem from past hurts, and their hate leads them to seek violent resolutions; meanwhile, Nakia operates from compassion to help the hurting rather than hurting those who cause pain.
But these contrasting worldviews don’t exist for their own right as character color. They aren’t like the Christ allusions in Man of Steel which exist almost solely to make viewers go, “Hey, he’s kind of like Jesus.” Rather, each character serves to authentically inform T’Challa’s character change throughout the course of the film. In reaction to Erik, he abandons the categorical isolation of his predecessors (echoing Shuri’s dismissal of tradition for tradition’s sake), but his means to doing so resemble Nakia’s compassion more than W’Kabi and Erik’s more violent approaches.
The result is this narrative framework that pulses with thoughtfulness without coming off as preachy or heavy handed. These characters all feel important because each makes relevant contributions to the overall argument, but each feels genuine and internally consistent in doing so. It’s a testament to the writing here that I’d totally be willing to watch a series of Black Panther spinoffs about Sterling K. Brown’s N’Jobu coming to America as a Wakandan spy and getting radicalized by the presence of an injustice he can’t fight with Wakandan enlightenment, or one about Killmonger paving his way through black ops missions centered by all consuming anger, or one about a yet unnamed woman’s training and acceptance into the Dora Milaje.
Speaking of characters, it merits mentioning that this is a joyfully feminist film. Not only are the women of Wakanda badass almost without exception, but they are confident and independent and equals in a society steeped in traditions that could easily favor patriarchy. Ssure, their leader is selected by way of ritual combat, but would anyone doubt that Nakia or Okoye wouldn’t stand a fighting chance against a declawed T’Challa? Even more importantly, though, this is one of (if not the first) Marvel film to pass the Bechdel test as it portrays two female characters debate personal duty without a man present. That’s a welcome addition to the corpus of modern mythology.
Lastly, in terms of character, we need to mention Wakanda itself. Unlike the Asgardians, who we’ve met three times now across Thor’s solo installments, Wakanda and its people feel real. Not only is there a consistent visual pattern rooted in African art, but we actually get rather well-acquainted with their values. They respect almost devoutly their ancestors, and they wholly embrace their duty to protect the Vibranium deposit on which their civilization is based. Theirs governing structure is a monarchy, but they permit lawful challenges to the throne from each of the tribes and from within the ruling family to keep access to the throne fair. They celebrate a strong leader not because the plot mandates a ritual combat scene, but because their values mandate the presence of a “protector." There’s even some distinct linguistic patterns that distinguish the Wakandans from ‘outsiders’ in the film - the repeated “ayeeee” sound a few characters make comes to mind. The use of ritual chants and drums throughout the soundtrack doesn’t hurt either. Combined, these elements make the Wakandan culture feel far more authentic than even the Amazons in Wonder Woman and definitely the Asgardians in Thor, a fact I bemoaned in my review of Ragnarok.
This Kitten has Claws, But Some Need to be Sharpened
However, when the camera closes in for more practical hand-to-hand skirmishes in the MCU, only the Russo brothers’ work on Winter Soldier and Civil War stands out in terms of technical proficiency. This stems from developing in characters consistent and district fighting styles (think Netflix’s Daredevil, Captain America, Wolverine, and even John Wick) and the actual filming of those practical effects.
Black Panther’s one-on-one waterfall duels made for extremely tense bouts with some memorable moves, both with and without the use of weapons, and with these scenes the film approaches some of the better work in the MCU. T’Challa fights with a mix of wrestling moves and tribal kickboxing attacks that feel consistent throughout the film and with his brutal efficiency from Civil War, and the dramatic use of practical effects allows for an appreciation of individual moves as tactics rather than just movement in a general sense. A ready illustration to help here is the difference between the dramatically-grounded movements in the Achilles vs Hector scene in Troy as opposed to the flashy but tensionless lightsabering depicted towards the beginning of the Duel of the Fates in Phantom Menace.
When CGI gets involved Panther's fights, though, close camera work and quick cuts increase the sense of spectacle but at the cost of dramatic tension. The final bout between T’Challa and Killmonger is a great example. While I remember specific moves and counters from the waterfall fights, I really can’t think of a specific attack from the finale, suggesting that computerized action - while it allows for the orchestration of more superhuman movements on screen - simply isn’t as compelling as well-shot practical effects. That means the action here is just eye candy for its own sake, a studio requirement that feels disconnected from the narrative.
I’d love to see a sequel in which T’Challa must reckon with the consequences of his final decision to have Wakanda enter the international community in earnest (hopefully Infinity War doesn’t keep this from happening). But that’s a worry for another day. For now, thank you, Mr. Coogler, and all involved.