With the release of Black Panther, it’s tempting to reflect on how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come in 10 years, and how it has essentially reinvented the film industry and become the standard bearer for quality mass entertainment in a genre that has rarely risen above straight-to-video viability. But that would take away from the singular achievement of Ryan Coogler and crew, who have found exciting and unexplored corners of the superhero movie template while fearlessly discarding societal baggage along the way.
Perhaps the first film of this scale to feature women and people of color in such prominent roles both in front of and behind the scenes, Black Panther delivers when it comes to the political and philosophical questions raised by its story. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, leads a secretive African nation of Wakanda, which hides its highly advanced civilization behind a façade of being a so-called “third world nation.” Wakandan society is based around the use of vibranium, an ultrarare metal that is concentrated in Wakanda thanks to a meteor strike in ancient times. What followed was the uniting of previously warring tribes and the harvesting of vibranium’s power to surpass the world technologically and socially; there is no poverty, no gender inequality, and conflicts are settled immediately with a shared respect for tradition.
PG-13, 140 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
We first met T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War, when he witnessed the death of his father, T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, in a terrorist attack. Black Panther picks up in the aftermath and the transition of power to T’Challa, which comes at a time of political uncertainty. Though isolated, Wakanda has spies and political operatives all over the world, and some believe that the time has come to reveal the truth and lead the world the way it ought to be led. Though never colonized, Wakandans understand its destructive past and continued effects on black populations the world over. The appearance of a mysterious American named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who knows more about Wakanda than an outsider should, forces the question: Do they maintain the tradition of secrecy that has kept them safe and allowed their society to flourish, or do they reveal the truth, risking their way of life for the sake of outsiders who suffer from problems they know how to resolve?
Coogler’s vision of Wakanda is the stuff of great science fiction, a civilization representing our hopes and dreams yet tormented by the suffering just out of view. Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) delivers one of the smoothest-looking superhero films since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, while production designer Hannah Beachler presents a compelling vision of a futuristic society that came to be free of European imposition.
Black Panther brings the MCU back to Earth, literally and metaphorically, by forgoing the mysticism of Dr. Strange and the space saga building elsewhere. The Shakespearean royal intrigue is less about bloodline than it is about the world and values we inherit, and when the time comes to defy those whom we previously lionized, Boseman is effortlessly charismatic with a terrific glint in his eye, indicating there is more to T’Challa than a title and a bulletproof suit. Jordan brings the same physicality to Killmonger as he did to Creed, every move he makes carrying the weight of his past experiences and demanding the world get out of his way.
The supporting cast is pitch perfect, including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and a scene-stealing turn by Andy Serkis. Coogler’s central question—if paradise can exist, should it?—makes this the most intelligent MCU film since Winter Soldier, and proof that blockbuster movies need not be lowest common denominator, that they can uplift while they entertain.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
The 15:17 to Paris, Early Man, Fifty Shades Freed, The Greatest Showman, Peter Rabbit, Sleepless in Seattle, Winchester
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
The 15:17 to Paris, Darkest Hour, Early Man, Fifty Shades Freed, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Mamil, Peter Rabbit, The Post, Samson, The Shape of Water
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
2018 Oscar Nominated Shorts, The 15:17 to Paris, Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Fifty Shades Freed, I, Tonya, Peter Rabbit, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Road Movie, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri