The oppression of the African continent at the hands of colonial powers has long been misguidedly excused through a particularly insidious psychological projection — namely, the suppression of the Other, the Jungian Shadow figure that superficially appears to be the embodiment of all the fears and negative complexes marginalized within the psyche to preserve the artificial construct of the persona. This is a culturally pervasive psychological construct that has resulted in centuries of genocide, slavery and every other inhuman act that one human being can conceivably perpetrate upon another. So why is this lofty subject being addressed with a comic book movie? Maybe that’s the only way people will finally pay attention.
Black Panther may be the apogee of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s trajectory — whereas the more standard superhero origins stories have become predictably formulaic, Black Panther feels like something wholly original. Yes, it ticks all of the requisite blockbuster boxes, with the flashy CGI spectacle we’ve come to expect of these enterprises, but it also has something more serious on its mind. It’s not just the exceptional cast composed almost entirely of people of color or the fact that it was helmed by the insanely talented Ryan Coogler (also black); it’s the fact that these decisions amount to more than a corporate edict moving a monolithic money-printing machine toward parity. Black Panther is more than a PR stunt conceived by jaded execs; it’s a bold statement affirming the very validity of the black experience itself.
It also manages to be one of the most consistently entertaining and thoughtfully composed films that Marvel has managed to produce, a cogent reminder that movies can be both fun and meaningful. The narrative follows the rise of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the incredibly advanced African nation of Wakanda, as he claims the throne — and the Vibranium-laced mantle of the Black Panther — from his recently deceased father. Wakanda is a utopian Shangri-La, hidden from the world to protect its invaluable stockpiles of Vibranium, a MacGuffin metal upon which the Wakandans have built a futuristic city-state that makes Asgard look like a one-horse town. But T’Challa’s rise to power is threatened by the aptly named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the son of a disgraced Wakandan spy raised in Oakland. The plot is practically Shakespearean in its political intrigue and courtly convolutions, and yet its statement on colonialism, geopolitical isolationism and insurgency are on the cutting edge of topicality.
The way that Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole pull this off without the slightest hint of any heavy-handed sermonizing is through their remarkably well-developed supporting characters. T’Challa is backed by some of the most badass women to grace and superhero flick, with Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright more than earning the accolades they’ve been receiving. Their characters are strong, well-developed and multidimensional, with all three actresses proving that the only thing that’s been holding women back in these kinds of films are the writers and producers. But the film’s point comes across through its bad guys, Andy Serkis in a mustache-twirling reprisal of his role as an exploitive arms dealer and smuggler, and Jordan in a standout turn as the most empathetic and multifaceted villain any superhero movie, Marvel or otherwise, has delivered to date.
If there can be any negative criticism leveled at Black Panther, it would have to be that the overstuffed plot can occasionally digress into the byzantine and the effects work suffers in comparison to the polish of some of the other Marvel films. But it also blows away all contenders when it comes to narrative structure and character development while delivering a poignant statement on global affairs that could easily have come across as ham-fisted in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Coogler has offered up something truly special in what I can hardly believe is only his third feature, and if this is what inclusivity can look like in the future of the MCU, here’s hoping Marvel doesn’t screw it up. Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, Co-ed of Brevard.