Black Panther: Punches, Politics, and Worldbuilding in the Best MCU Movie
There are a lot of reasons why people don’t like the Star Wars prequel films, from the annoying new characters they introduced to the CGI that was dated by the time they hit their second week in theaters. But the single main reason I personally cannot stand the prequels, and especially The Phantom Menace, is the politics. When one goes to see a Star Wars movie, one expects grand heroic figures and epic lightsaber fights. The Phantom Menace, instead, gave us Jar-Jar Binks and talk of trade embargoes on planets whose internal political systems I could not care for. Which is a shame, because the universe of Star Wars is one that I WANT to invest time in, that I WANT to believe exists, but now can’t because of the mangled worldbuilding that George Lucas ended up producing.
Luckily for me, I have Black Panther to now satiate that hunger.
Black Panther, the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tells the story of T’Challa, the eponymous hero and king of fictional African nation Wakanda, who must decide whether to open up the historically secretive nation to the rest of the world, or keep hidden behind secret advanced technology as his ancestors had. Director Ryan Coogler brings a much needed sense of humanity to the characters, making Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa as an introspective, thinking leader, rather than someone who uses violence and fighting as a be-all-end-all.
That’s not to say that Black Panther lacks any fighting; heck, some of the most entertaining scenes featured T’Challa throwing down in ritual combat for the throne in some of the most raw fight scenes that I think Marvel has ever committed to film. And Boseman nails both the physical aspects of T’Challa (a double feat, considering that Boseman himself is 40 years old!) and the personality befitting a dignified, African king.
The movie is also bolstered by its massive supporting cast, none of whom were any less great in their roles. Daniel Kaluuya, a rising star from last year’s Oscar-nominated underdog Get Out, is great as W’kabi, a friend of T’Challa’s who isn’t too supportive of some of the executive decisions that get made. Winston Duke brings a surprising intensity in his role as M’Baku, the leader of a rival Wakandan tribe. Letitia Wright steals the show humor-wise as T’Challa’s tech-minded younger sister Shuri, and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are both fantastic as Nakia and Okoye, respectively, two guards in the all-female Wakandan army. Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, the CIA officer assigned to work with Wakanda, doesn’t bring much to the table, but then again, he is really supposed to remain kind of a background character, so I wasn’t expecting much from him in the first place. Andy Serkis was a treat in one of his rare live-action roles as Ulysses Klaue, a semi-major villain with a sonic cannon in his prosthetic arm.
There is one actor, however, who I have left out of the previous paragraph, and that’s because there’s a lot that I want to talk about when it comes to his character. Michael B. Jordan, as Killmonger, at first looks like he’s going down the “hero-except-evil” road that plagued previous Marvel villains, such as Obadiah Stane (played by Jeff Bridges in Iron Man), Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll in Ant-Man), and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in Doctor Strange) - one-note characters who shared power sets with the heroes they were up against, and existed simply for the protagonists to defeat them and become heroes.
Over the course of the film, though, it is clear that Jordan’s Killmonger is so much more nuanced than that; he is not just a carbon copy of Black Panther to simply be discarded in a bombastic third act. He is a foil to T’Challa; a man with the same motivations as the hero but a different way of getting there, forcing T’Challa to think about why his way of getting what he wants is better than Killmonger’s. At one point in the film, the camera rotates 180 degrees, from upside down to right-side up again, mirroring how Killmonger’s actions have shaken Wakanda and turned the monarchy upside down (side note that really shouldn’t be a side note, the camera work in this movie is outstanding). It is this nuance that elevates Killmonger from a simple throwaway villain to one of the most nuanced, best villains in the MCU, up there with Loki from the Thor franchise and The Avengers, and even competing with the villains of the Netflix shows, like Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave.
The music in this movie was also a blast. Kendrick Lamarr’s influence on the movie’s soundtrack cannot go unstated; his songs helped the emotions of the scenes they were featured in cut deeper than they would have otherwise. But it is not just the soundtrack but the score as well that must be given praise. While the MCU doesn’t necessarily have the best track record when it comes to memorable scores, Black Panther’s use of African drums and chants in its score helped it get stuck in my head weeks after I left the theater, and made it probably the only MCU score that’s been stuck in my head for that long.
But what must be given the most praise is Coogler’s ability to craft enough of Wakanda that the viewer can understand and accept its existence, while leaving out just enough details to keep the viewers’ curiosity and not overload them with details. This is where other movies and movie franchises, such as Star Wars, went wrong. Of course there are essential details of the politics of the world that the viewer has to know in order to fully understand the motivations of the characters and become emotionally invested in the film. In the case of Wakanda, those details would be in how the Wakandan monarchy functions, the basic alliances between the tribes of the country, and the aesthetic of the landscape and cityscape. Star Wars also got this in the Original Trilogy by showing just enough of how the Empire functioned, how the Rebels functioned, and how the Jedi functioned, and bits and pieces of other planets as well.
Where Star Wars fails relative to Black Panther is in its insistence on drowning the viewer in details. Coogler, however, left enough to the imagination that we wouldn’t have really needed to know to get the film, that fans can now speculate about on Twitter and Facebook and Reddit and essentially keep the film alive.
It is in this regard that I consider Black Panther the best MCU movie. While other films have had to introduce the viewers to new ideas, characters, and motivations--heck, Doctor Strange had to introduce a whole magic system to the MCU--Black Panther did it the best, tipping just enough of its hand to show you that it was great, but leaving back enough that we can only guess how great it can continue to be in the future. At least, until they start going into trade embargoes. Then I’m out.