Movies

‘Black Panther’ Breakdown: The Best Things About The Year’s First Big Hit


Marvel

You’ve seen Black Panther, yes? I imagine you have. Between the film’s $200 million opening weekend and the fact that you clicked on a post whose title pretty clearly indicates that it will spoil huge chunks of the movie for you, it’s a pretty safe bet. That’s good. Black Panther is a good movie. A really good movie, to be specific, in about three or four different ways. There’s a lot to discuss, and this feels like as good a place and time to do that. For example: I want one of those war rhinos so bad. I mean, that’s not the main thing I want to discuss, but it’s still true. We’ll circle back if there’s time.

Let’s talk about Black Panther.

1. First of all, let’s give a round of applause to Ryan Coogler. In fact, let’s give him two rounds of applause: One for somehow making a Marvel movie that felt fresh and exciting something like 60 films into the franchise (a trick he’s now pulled off twice, between this and Creed, which was way, way better than the seventh Rocky movie had any right to be), and one for the way he did it. He made a movie with an almost all-black cast, set in Africa, and turned it into a top-five all-time box office smash. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where that kind of thing doesn’t need to be pointed out, and hopefully, movies like this will help get us there sooner rather than later, but until then, it’s kind of a big deal. Dude has earned a victory lap if he chooses to take one.

2. Lots of really good performances in the movie, starting with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (in a role that could have easily fallen into the “goodie goodie Boy Scout” trap that Captain America slides into sometimes) and Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger (who we’ll discuss more in a second). But we should also stop for a second to take note of the women in the film: Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex and a badass spy and warrior; Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the all-female special forces unit; Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother and the recently widowed queen; and Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s tech genius teenage sister, who stole huge chunks of the movie with one-liners and glances, and who will hopefully be popping up in movies at a rapid pace in the near future.

3. But yes, Killmonger. We shouldn’t be surprised that Killmonger was a good villain because the Coogler-Jordan pairing is basically undefeated so far. But watching them thread the needle with the character was wild. He was evil, for sure, as evidenced by him shooting his girlfriend to get to Klau and also by everything else he did throughout the movie. It would have been easy for that to tip over into caricature, as we’ve seen in action movies for decades. What saved it was the way he was grounded in a kind of militant, winners vs. losers outlook on the world, and his sense that what he was doing had a purpose rooted in “good” (in his view), not just in the acquisition of power/money/etc. I didn’t know if the film was going to pull that off until the scene with Killmonger and his father (played by Sterling K. Brown, who is also pretty good at acting). That was a solid piece of business.

4. A bit of reporting: I went to see a 12:30 matinee of the movie on Saturday. The theater was packed and everyone was very into it. So into it, in fact, that when Michael B. Jordan took off his shirt for the Killmonger-T’Challa battle, a woman a few rows in front of me gasped. Like, loud, and I’m pretty sure in a way that was completely involuntary. She should be writing this column instead of me.

Marvel

5. Black Panther was an extremely political movie, man. It touched on everything, from race to inequality to nationalism to about four or five other important topics in today’s society, some of which I probably didn’t even pick up on during my first watch and will become very obvious two or three viewings down the road. What impressed me about the movie, though, was the way the issues were handled. A lot of times, when a movie gets overtly political, it comes across hamhanded and obvious, like the character delivering the line is going to lean forward out of the screen and nudge you in the ribs to be sure you got the message. That annoys me to no end and often takes me out of the movie, because I do not always want my fun action movies to sit me down and explain to me how woke they are. This was different, though. The political messages fit into the story in a way that felt real and natural. They were things Wakanda and the characters were dealing with, not a square peg blasted through a round hole with dynamite to deliver a 10th-grade civics lesson. I dug that.

6. I bet there’s a rich dude in Wakanda who is just wasting vibranium on the silliest things to show off.

RICH WAKANDAN GUY: How’s the soup?

GUEST: Uh, pretty good.

RICH WAKANDAN GUY: [lowers sunglasses] That spoon is vibranium, by the way.

7. One thing we don’t want to lose sight of in all of this: Black Panther was a great movie, from a technical perspective. That part of it might be getting overshadowed a bit by the bigger picture issues, understandably, but it doesn’t make it less true. The movie told a really interesting story, in a way that gave it a clear beginning, an exciting middle, and a satisfying end, while also setting up the continuation of the franchise. That’s no easy task. Also, most of the action scenes were great, the depictions of Wakanda were jaw dropping, and it managed to do it all in a tick over two hours that felt more like 90 minutes. To pull all that off inside the Marvel-Disney juggernaut is an achievement worth appreciating, in addition to all its other achievements that are also worth appreciating.

8. It was nice to have another mostly standalone Marvel movie again, right? I sure thought so. While I’ve enjoyed a bunch of the movies the franchise plotted out over the last 10-15 years, there was an aspect of it all that felt like homework. Like, “Well, I want to go see The Avengers, but I guess I need to see the second Thor first or I’ll be lost.” And even the Avengers movies, which I enjoyed in the moment, feel a little like empty calories in hindsight because they had to spend so much energy explaining why and how everyone was teaming up that the actual “good guys vs. bad guys” story got pushed aside a bit. (Gun to my head, I cannot remember why Ultron was so mad at everyone, and I’ve seen that movie three times.) Admittedly, this is more of an issue for casual Marvel fans like me. It was nice, though. Black Panther was very much its own experience and it benefitted from that in a lot of ways.

9. To be perfectly honest, I would have been happier if the post-credits scene just explained Wakanda a little more, instead of bringing Bucky out for a minute. I am now fascinated by it. Think about this: There have to be citizens of Wakanda whose job it is to hang out in the dry fields all the time pretending to be poor farmers, even though the rest of the people get to live in a futuristic vibranium-lined paradise. They must be so pissed off all day, working the fields in a back-breakingly believable enough manner to fool satellite images, thinking about their cousin Vernon or whatever playing his vibranium PlayStation on the bullet train to the downtown area. That’s the sequel I want to see. Just those dudes complaining for two hours.

10. Seriously, though. I need a war rhinoceros. I can’t explain why right now. I just do. Trust me.

You can find more of Brian Grubb on the TV Avalanche podcast with Alan Sepinwall. Subscribe!

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