Note: That headline may be a bit less euphoric than it first sounds since long-time readers may remember that I actually dislike most Marvel films, finding them machine-made and largely flavorless. The “Doctor Strange,” “Ant-Man,” “Thor,” and “Avengers” franchises do nothing for me, and even if I enjoyed “Captain America,” “Iron Man,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (to different degrees), their sequels wound up being mostly disappointing.
“Black Panther” works by being a mostly stand-alone film rather than part of some forced universe where Black Widow or Hawkeye may casually drop by, seemingly just to introduce the next Marvel film about “Swamp Man” or whatever the hell is left at this point.
What Works: The set design is steeped in a gorgeous Afro-futurism, and the striking world of deep purples and blood-reds really pops in a way that reminds you of how bland-looking most superhero movies are (even DC-films). Much has been made about the film’s strong female characters, and they’re great, but even more impressive (to me) were the two best villains I’ve seen in a Marvel film yet.
I’m talking about the charismatically disgusting mercenary Ulysses Klaue (played by the great Andy Serkis with a convincing Afrikaners accent and soccer hooligan-thuggishness) and the vividly hateful Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan with the seething swagger of a young Wesley Snipes during his political-minded, early 90’s crime-lords era). Serkis does a lot with a little, squeezing even throwaway lines for maximum juice, but Jordan’s villain is arguably the closest Marvel has ever gotten to Heath Ledger’s great Joker: a twisted bad guy who’s almost understandable in his misguided philsophy. The movie is nearly halfway over by the time his plan comes into focus, but once it does, the time flies by, engaging the audience in a real moral debate in ways no previous Marvel film has ever really been interested (unless you count “Captain America 2: Winter Soldier” which mostly just said “fascism sucks” and counted that as a timely political message).
What Doesn’t Work: The sheer sprawl of this Marvel cinematic universe—18 movies and counting, with the trailers for “Deadpool 2,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Avengers Whatever,” and Sony’s “Venom,” playing before “Panther”—makes me feel I need “Homeland”‘s corkboard to keep up with all the plotlines. Towards the beginning I thought “Now was Andy Serkis also in ‘Avengers 2’ or that ‘Captain America’ movie Black Panther was in?” “And did he kill Black Panther’s dad or was it Daniel Bruhl’s terrorist or–wait–wasn’t Black Panther mad at Bucky Barnes for it?” “Then why did his sister have Barnes in a hut in the post-credits scene?” “And why should I give a shit when I hate Sebastian Stan’s Barnes, the blandest character in a sea of them?” So much has already happened to Black Panther the character before the film “Black Panther” begins that it might take you out of the movie to remember it all. Although “Panther” largely sticks to the successful template (used in last year’s “Wonder Woman”) of just mentioning previous events during book-ends towards the beginning of the movie and at the very end.
What I Would Have Done Differently: The film’s real plot doesn’t start until an hour in and is perhaps too-quickly resolved; I might’ve cut some scenes out of the first half in order to more fully explore Killmonger’s plans. Also, I’d love to see Amma Asante direct the sequel or perhaps a Nollywood director since Ryan Coogler–capable as he is–does not really seem totally comfortable with the Wakanda scenes (sometimes the heroes are over-earnest and other times the film seems to be unintentionally veering into “Lion King” territory), and keeps finding ways to force his native Oakland or Americanized frame of reference into the film. Although that can be intriguing in the case of Killmonger (Coogler is clearly influenced by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and even Osama Bin Laden, a monster the American government may have accidentally created), I noticed that Killmonger’s plans and much of Coogler’s dialogue seemed to suggest that Africa should be doing more to help African-Americans, rather than the other way around. Sure, Wakanda is a fictional utopia with better resources than real black neighborhoods in America, but every time the film brings up the plight of black suffering, it’s in New York over Niger, Oakland over South Sudan, London over Liberia, etc.