Special Effects: B+
Production Design: A-
For obvious reasons I can't speak to what Black Panther must mean to black audiences. I'll let them speak for themselves. What I can say is it's easily the best superhero movie (or, more accurately, comic book adaptation) since 2008's The Dark Knight, and arguably the best since 1992's Batman Returns, or by some measures the best ever made.
This is certainly a film that stands on its own, in spite of it being (unfortunately) part of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," in a way no other Marvel adaptation has achieved since the unveiling of this shared "universe." This all started with Iron Man (also 2008), a relatively strong start to what was followed by an entire decade of superhero movies that virtually all follow the same formula, to the point that I now actively avoid these movies as a general rule. It's just the same shit, different month.
Every once in a while, however, a delightful exception comes along. Last year's Logan was one them. Not even that could stand up to the import of Black Panther, how much this film can mean to so many people. Everyone wants to see reflections of themselves in the heroes they see onscreen. I suppose all that's left is for a movie about a legitimate superhero who happens to be gay to come along, but I'm not complaining. I mean, Black Panther has plenty of eye candy, at least.
Although it clocks in at 134 minutes, this movie has a lot going on, and director and co-writer Ryan Coogler presents it with consistent efficiency -- especially the backstory of the fictional African country of Wakanda, succinctly explained in a matter of seconds. It turns out Coogler is another in an increasing line of directors of smaller but excellent films (in his case, 2013's Fruitvale Station) given the reigns of a massive blockbuster. Coogler turns out to be an inspired choice, a man who clearly knows how to weave serious cultural issues with subtle perfection into the narrative of blockbuster entertainment.
And the story does a bit of a bait and switch in a rather satisfying way, turning the notion of a supervillain on its head. This movie's "bad guy" isn't who it seems at first, and the villain that emerges is by no means intrinsically evil. The major players here all agree that problems the world over need addressing, a fight for the oppressed. The debate is regarding the secret technological resources of Wakanda, whether it should be shared, and how. In fact, the story of Black Panther is written with such precision that it allows audiences to engage in that debate themselves, without supplying easy answers.
This is perhaps what impresses me most about Black Panther: even in a movie packed with action, a movie still recognizable as a comic book adaptation, none of it is contrived -- that being the key difference from nearly every other superhero movie of the past decade. It characters of royal blood and themes of family rivalry are almost Shakespearean. It deals with succession to the throne and ritual battles, all with production and costume design with fantastically authentic African influences. The hero just happens to be a man who suits up in an alien technology-enhanced panther costume.
Not only is Black Panther unapologetically African, it is also quite defiantly feminist -- it's probably the most female-empowered action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The two main rival characters here may be men, but they are surrounded by the most badass women warriors (led by Danai Gurira, with an even balance of poise, strength and humor), without whom Black Panther would be nothing. And there is diversity to these women's abilities; they aren't all just warriors. Black Panther has a sister (Letita Wright) who is a genius with the "vibranium" technology, designing his weapons and defenses for him, as well as for the entire country. Angela Basset is perfectly regal as his royal mother. Lupita Nyong'o is the skilled spy he's in love with.
And I haven't even mentioned Chadwick Boseman as the title character, with shades of Bruce Wayne in his struggle to reconcile duties between alter egos. The difference here is a much greater responsibility and global question rests on his shoulders. Michael B. Jordan is hot as shit as his rival, "Killmonger" (a cornball name that nevertheless works). Or even key parts by Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya, and Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis. The latter two almost seem deliberately to subvert the "token black character" concept, here being pretty clearly token white characters -- the only white characters of any significance in this vast ensemble cast -- and yet they are used both playfully and effectively, with layered and knowing performances all their own.
The setting moves around the world a bit, from London to Oakland to South Korea -- Korea featuring a pretty nifty car chase sequence -- but the vast majority of the story takes place right there within the gorgeously rendered country of Wakanda. I can't say the special effects are especially cutting edge here, but the story, the writing and especially the editing, are so strong as to render that immaterial, providing a true sense of place, even though it's entirely invented.
In other words, in a multitude of ways, Black Panther is a historic film, a point that cannot be understated, even though the film itself is executed with brilliant understatement all its own. On the surface, it's a tightly polished action adventure, with stakes that matter and characters that feel authentic -- all elements sorely lacking from most comic book movies these days. This is not just another story about cookie-cutter heroes we have no reason to feel emotionally invested in because they are ultimately invincible. This is a story with emotional heft, a playful heart, and real-world concerns. You really could not ask for more than what this movie delivers.