In Spiderman Homecoming, the far-and-away best scene of the film was staged as a conversation with the villain peering over his shoulder and the hero in the back seat. I remember really liking the Vulture costume design and the high-school setting being a fair bit of fun, but the movie’s lasting legacy in my mind is that nervy little conversation, which feels very much of a piece with director Jon Watts’ previous film, Cop Car. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II was better as a whole, but its strongest moments still clearly harken to the semi-gross-out subversion of James Gunn’s previous films, such as Slither. Thor: Ragnarok was at its best when Taika Waititi was allowed to throw in things like an overly polite Kiwi rock monster straight out of What We Do in the Shadows, Iron Man 3 shined when Shane Black got to do his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang thing and let Robert Downey Jr. be a grinch around Christmas, and the most memorable moment from The Avengers was a very Joss Whedon-esque gag about shawarma.
Each director brought a very specific talent to the Marvel films, but notably, few of them had a background in big-budget action movies, skewing towards indie comedy, horror, and suspense. Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, has two dramas under his belt, the humanistic Fruitvale Station and the triumphant Creed. Perhaps its no surprise then that some of its most memorable moments are its quietest, whether they take place in an apartment in Oakland or the birch-laden lookout of a hermit king. What’s a bit surprising is the detail and world-building that Coogler puts in, making a film that with a wholly original aesthetic to the other Marvel films, a sort of Afrofuturistic James Bond vibe. Unfortunately, the fall back to Earth stings all the more because of it, and Black Panther winds up less than the sum of its parts with a tiring and overcrowded third act.
It’s a superhero movie, I recognize that fights come with the territory. But Black Panther is so stock full of fantastic creations on its periphery that any break for some action feels like a distraction. Take Coogler mainstay Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger, who is absolutely a top-tier villain thanks to a performance that gives more than the final cut gives back to him. Killmonger’s philosophy is one of rage and justice, and one that would have benefited from more screen time. Killmonger as a character didn’t just leave me wanting more, but really left me feeling like he should have had at least equal focus as Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. Indeed, oddly for a Marvel movie, the villains get the better end of the charisma stick here, especially once Andy Serkis’ endlessly enjoyable Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “CLAW”) is thrown into the mix. While Letitia Wright nearly runs away with the whole damn movie as T’Challa’s younger sister, functioning as sort of a Wakandan Q, the heroes just don’t garner the same level of interest, leaving a bit of a hole at the center.
In a bit of a mirror to Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther explicitly questions the ramifications of colonialism and privilege of a history of power, and while it follows through on it significantly better than its predecessor, it still loses a lot of its thrust by concluding with large-scale brawl. It strives pointlessly to give every character a capping moment when only T’Challa and Killmonger needed one (why Martin Freeman’s CIA agent factors in at all to the ending is beyond me). Like the sweeping one-take marvel of a fight in Creed, Coogler is best at staging fights in a close-up one-to-one scale, faltering when the scale gets bigger (a one-take casino fight uses its extra space and ends comes away feels entirely artificial). Weirdly, Black Panther very clearly could have told a strong, personal story with a strong political message, but even without the intrusion of infinity stones and Benedict Cumberbatch cameos, cramming in the Marvel house style keeps it from reaching its potential.
Black Panther (2018)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Michael B. Jordan
Rotten Tomatoes (97%)