Black Panther moves extraordinarily well. It’s got a number of constraints, which director Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole agilely and creatively surmount. It’s also got Coogler’s lingering eye. The film can never look away from its setting–the Kingdom of Wakanda–for too long. Rachel Morrison’s photography emphasizes it, the editing emphasizes it, Ludwig Göransson’s likably ostentatious score emphasizes it.
The film opens with a stylized flashback prologue, setting up Wakanda. It’s an isolated African nation. A meteor with a magic metal crashed into it before humans and made magic plants. When humans arrive, they eat magic plants, they use magic metal, they become technologically superior. And they isolate themselves.
Then the film introduces lead Chadwick Boseman. Not protagonist Chadwick Boseman, unfortunately, but lead. And immediately he gets overshadowed. First by Danai Gurira as a general. Then by Lupita Nyong’o as Boseman’s ex-girlfriend and a spy. Everyone in the movie–with the exceptions of Martin Freeman and Daniel Kaluuya–gets to overshadow Boseman at one point or another. Coogler and Cole don’t seem to have an angle on the character, who should be on a self-discovery arc but can’t be because it’s a Marvel movie and he’s a superhero.
There are a few other things Black Panther really wants to do and wants to be, but can’t because of that Marvel movie constraint. Coogler and Cole do some amazing things to counter–especially since the movie opens with Boseman just getting down with his adventure in the third Captain America movie. They immediately work to establish the film on its own ground. Gurira and, especially, Nyong’o make it happen.
Then it’s time for more supporting cast introductions. Letitia Wright as Boseman’s techno-genius little sister. Mom is Angela Bassett. Forest Whitaker has a big part. Winston Duke is one of the tribal leaders. And Kaluuya. Kaluuya is Boseman’s friend who never gets to one-up Boseman. Wright’s whole part is one-upping him. Same with Duke.
Martin Freeman doesn’t get to one-up Boseman either. He’s a returning character from the Captain America movie. He’s narratively pointless. But Coogler keeps him busy and has some fun with the character. Andy Serkis is the other connection to the existing Marvel narrative. But he’s great. Coogler and Cole write this obnoxious jackass of a super-powered arms dealer and Serkis makes it work. I don’t remember Serkis–playing the character for the third or fourth time–ever being anywhere near as impressive as here.
Because Coogler makes it happen. He’s able to balance all the things Black Panther needs to do, wants to do, and can’t do.
Villain Michael B. Jordan is separate from that balance. He’s the bad guy, but he’s got a more traditional protagonist arc. If he weren’t a bad guy. Even the heroic aspects of his arc, there’s something bad about. Jordan plays the hell out of the part. It’s a better performance than part. One of the things Black Panther runs out of time on is Jordan’s villain arc. Because the third act’s got to have the action.
Coogler directs the action well. He directs the high speed fight scenes–Boseman’s nanite-infused outfit does something like superspeed–and he keeps it all moving. The fight choreography is awesome, whether it’s Boseman and Jordan or Boseman and Jordan’s CGI doubles or an actual huge battle scene with Gurira commanding troops.
I mean, Freeman’s Star Wars spaceship fighter chase thing is narratively required but not good. Coogler doesn’t do the starfighter chase thing. It’s fine. It’s not just Freeman playing Last Starfighter, thank goodness; they wisely leverage Wright to pace it better.
The final showdown between Boseman and Jordan is pretty good. The movie runs out of time with it too though. The denouement is too short. The second act is too short. Black Panther could easily support another ten or fifteen minutes over its two and a quarter hour runtime.
Great photography from Morrison. Great editing from Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver. Likable but not great score from Göransson. Breathtaking production design by Hannah Beachler. It’s a beautiful film.
Nyong’o, Gurira, Wright, Duke, Sterling K. Brown; all great. Whitaker’s pretty good. The part turns out to be a little wonky. Bassett’s good. Kaluuya’s part is undercooked. And then the lunacy of Serkis.
Black Panther is a darn good superhero movie and a beautifully, lovingly, and expertly produced one.
It’d just have been nice if Coogler and Cole had as strong a handle on Boseman’s character as they do on Jordan’s. It’s a Marvel movie, after all. The bad guys never get to overshadow the heroes.