This is what I wrote about Black Panther in 2018:
african-american directors series: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)
Saturday, February 24, 2018
I'm not sure I'm up to the task of writing about Black Panther, which is so much more than "just" another Marvel superhero movie. Just to address the Marvel-ness of it, I am marginally conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I mostly like the movies I've seen ... well, I didn't think much of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the rest, sure, they're OK. But I usually only see them because my wife is a fan. Personally, I prefer some of the TV series, especially Agent Carter. So one thing that set Black Panther off from the rest is that I wanted to see it; I didn't wait to be dragged into the theater. And my desire was justified, because Black Panther works on its own as a movie, separate from Marvel mythology.
I was delighted to see how much Oakland love was in the movie. We saw it at a theater less than a mile from the Oakland border (in Emeryville, home of Pixar, who are always putting animated local landmarks in their films), and right at the beginning, when a title tells us we're in Oakland in 1992 while Too $hort's "In the Trunk" plays on the soundtrack, the crowd erupted in applause, a tangible example of how audiences see themselves on the screen when watching Black Panther. (It wasn't shot in Oakland ... I think Atlanta was the location ... but given that director/writer Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland, the visuals are on target.)
Black Panther serves its function as an origin story, and since we're told at the end that the character will be featured in Avengers: Infinity War later this year, it is clear that Marvel is in this for the long haul (it doesn't hurt that Black Panther is already one of the biggest grossing films in history). But Black Panther didn't leave me wanting to see Infinity War, even if my wife inevitably gets me to watch it. I suspect this is because, as I noted, Black Panther works as a movie ... it made me want to see the next Black Panther movie Coogler works on, which isn't the same as wanting to see Infinity War because Black Panther will be in it.
Much has been made of the political statements the film is making. Black Panther wears its political heart on its sleeve. The message of the movie is messy, which accounts for the various disparate explanations of what is going on. But you don't have to dig very deep to start the discussion.
I have read some convincing arguments that Black Panther is ultimately something less than revolutionary in its narrative (the plethora of black filmmakers and actors in the film is revolutionary in itself, of course). Much of the film's thrust involves deciding who will be King of Wakanda, and that decision is based more on hand-to-hand combat than on a reasoned confab on politics. Since Erik Killmonger, who proposes that Wakanda should be sharing its wealth to help liberate the oppressed all around the world, is presented as "The Villain", his revolutionary position is attached to a "bad guy". Supposedly, this taints the radical politics of Killmonger, and I understand why it seems that way.
But people have been rooting for the bad guy for a hundred years of movies. Jack Nicholson's Joker is evil compared to Michael Keaton's Batman, but Nicholson's acting in the film is much more enjoyable than Keaton's, and Batman is a bit of a fascist in that movie anyway, so I didn't have any trouble "rooting" for the Joker. It is true that Keaton's low-key approach to his character allows Nicholson to take over the film, but it is also true that without Nicholson, Burton's Batman would be even darker than it already is.
A comparison of Joker/Batman and Killmonger/Panther doesn't completely work. In Batman, not only does Nicholson dominate the movie, entertaining the audience in the process, but Batman is not a benign leader of men, but instead a fascist. In Black Panther, we are led to think of T'Challa as a good ruler ... he is easier to root for than Bruce Wayne. And while Nicholson overwhelms Batman, Black Panther is full of strong characters (many of them women) and thrilling performances. One reason it's hard to root for Killmonger is that Chadwick Boseman is himself charismatic ... he makes us want to accept T'Challa's way.
Yet I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.
Of course, those gangster movies weren't making explicit political arguments. It's a sign of the greatness of Black Panther that it is not only a great spectacle (we saw it in IMAX 2D, which I much prefer to 3D), but it inspires discussion after the fact.