This weekend, Smoosh had the the opportunity to see Marvel Studios’ new film, Black Panther. We all had been eagerly anticipating the release of this movie and are happy to say that we loved it. Our resident movie critic, Zach, wrote a review of the film to help you decide if you should go see it, too.
Black Panther is a terrific exercise in deftly weaving a grounded story about family, country, and struggle into a big-budget “superhero” movie, marking a turning point for the genre and the franchise as a whole.
Last year’s Thor: Ragnarok (a movie I was very effusive about in my Thor: Ragnarok review) serves as a great lead-in to Black Panther, though both Marvel movies couldn’t be more different. It’s impossible to watch Ragnarok and not see it as the clear, distinct, completely manic vision of a singular director. There was a case to be made that it was an anomaly, that Taika Waititi had snuck his way onto the Disney lot and turned what was a staid and stoic action franchise into a Kiwi buddy comedy. Black Panther is here to prove that couldn’t be farther from the truth and that Marvel has a very distinct vision in mind for the future of its films. If box-office records are any indicator, audiences couldn’t be more on board for it.
Black Panther is the story of Wakanda, a fictional, Afrofuturistic East-African nation whose access to an incredible resource has catapulted them into being the most technologically advanced country on the planet. To protect this resource, they’ve chosen to remain hidden from the rest of the world, masquerading as an impoverished nation of farmers. It’s a great meditation on what an African country could look like free from Western influence and colonization. T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman as the titular Black Panther, must learn to bear the mantle of king as he struggles to rule an increasingly divided nation. Should Wakanda reveal itself to the world in order to share their technology and provide aid? Should they remain hidden to protect their way of life? Or should they become the conquerors instead?
The beauty of Black Panther is how it manages to use that backdrop to tell a much more personal story about fathers, pride, and the struggle for acceptance. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is easily the most compelling villain Marvel has created to date, and his performance is nothing short of riveting. It’s difficult to elaborate on the nuances of his character without spoiling major plot points of the film, but it’s obvious that Erik is the character that director Ryan Coogler most empathizes with, functionally acting as a stand-in for himself and likely most African-American men today. The rage he engenders at both his current situation and the lack of Wakanda’s willingness to help both him and others like him comes off as both genuine and realistic. The internal change that occurs in T’Challa at the end of the movie is a direct result of Erik’s actions, which is rare to see in any superhero movie.
Among many others, the best trick Black Panther pulls is in its ability to create such a diverse array of interesting characters. T’Challa’s Black Panther is arguably the least interesting character in a cast absolutely bursting with an embarrassment of talent. The movie’s exceptional ability to wrest fascinating performances out of its leading ladies — Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright especially — make Marvel’s misuse of strong female actors in the past almost inexcusable. It’s the first Marvel film that truly begs for sequels that can explore both the world of Wakanda and every character in it.
When Iron Man was released in 2008, Tony Stark took to a podium, threw away his notes, and proudly declared “I Am Iron Man.” It’s a cool moment in a cool film, specifically because it defied the conventional notions we had of superheroes at the time.
Marvel took off from there and then never really came back down. Over the course of 18 films, their heroes have battled aliens, gods, monsters, and even each other in their quest to protect the universe. In May, they’ll face their most cosmically powerful enemy yet in Avengers: Infinity War. I’m just not sure how much I care, and it’s Black Panther’s fault. Black Panther takes time to establish a grounded conflict with believable characters and tackles issues that are very much applicable to our lives today.
It’s easy to forget why we created superheroes in the first place, because in the movies they solve problems that don’t exist. Nobody really wants to see Captain America give speeches in Congress or watch the Hulk clean up oil spills. The last few minutes of Black Panther end with T’Challa meeting some African-American kids on a basketball court in Oakland. He reveals his technologically advanced spaceship to them, and they ogle as one young boy breaks away and slowly walks up to him. “Yo, is that yours? Who are you?” T’Challa smiles, and we cut to credits. It’s the most poignantly affecting moment of any Marvel film, and it has everything to do with what that moment would mean for that very real boy and every single one like him. It’s not a moment predicated on a show of strength or a spandex suit; it’s just a moment between two humans.
Ryan Coogler never forgets the real reason superheroes exist — that at some point, someone looked up and wished for something better.
Black Panther is in theaters now! Check out the trailer below as well as the excellent Black Panther soundtrack, produced by Kendrick Lamar!