The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an undeniable juggernaut in cinema at the moment, which makes the studio’s consistent level of quality shocking. It’s been 10 years, 18 films and $14 billion after “Iron Man” catapulted superhero movies into “guaranteed profit” territory. Disney has yet to see a Marvel film critically disparaged. Even its worst movies avoid the pitfalls of most other studio tent poles.
There are, of course, deep-rooted problems with this formula. For every great film in the universe, there are five or six bland ones — usually helmed by an acclaimed director whose style and talent is warped and muted in post-production.
Superheroes are cool and funny and interesting. More importantly, superheroes make money, and Disney won’t let controversial artistic choices threaten their box office receipts. There are plenty of stories out there about great filmmakers hampered by the studio’s strict or unclear guidelines. The MCU is fun, but that fun comes at a steep cost for the folks behind the camera.
Enter Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director and Oakland, CA, native best known for reviving the “Rocky” franchise. That film showcased Coogler’s ability to imbue studio-led franchises with refreshing energy. When he signed on to helm “Black Panther,” an origin film for Marvel’s Afrofuturistic superhero, it was easy to get excited. Coogler’s career is young, but his obvious talent is the perfect vehicle for “Panther.” Add the charisma and talent of a dynamite ensemble cast — led by Chadwick Boseman and “Creed” star Michael B. Jordan — and the film has the potential for “landmark” status.
Good news first: “Panther” is (mostly) worth the hype, and will be remembered as one of the most distinct chapters in the Marvel canon. Much of the credit is owed to the script (penned by Coogler and John Robert Cole) that balances MCU mythology and visual grandeur with a emotionally charged storyline. The film takes place almost entirely in Wakanda, a fictional nation in East Africa that presents itself outwardly as a third-world country. Underneath the facade lies a futuristic society driven by an all-powerful rare metal called vibranium. T’Challa (Boseman) is next in line for the Wakandan throne and the Black Panther namesake after the death of his father T’Chaka. Complicating his ascension is the very angry, very buff Killmonger (Jordan) and a series of unpleasant discoveries regarding T’Chaka’s reign.
There is very little new in the film’s structure. But Coogler succeeds at injecting it with a distinctly political edge, a welcome change of pace for a genre most often concerned with avoiding difficult subjects. Race relations and inner-city violence play significant narrative roles, albeit in ways that allow audiences a comforting level of distance.
Black liberation and pride is a central theme, explored with a deft hand. Wakanda is a wonder to behold, and every moment spent there offers moments of amazement. The various tribes each display a unique culture that puts other world-building efforts to shame. Meanwhile, every character feels wholly realized, even when Killmonger quickly emerges as the star of the show. Jordan’s performance is braggadocious, tragic and badass, often at the same time. It all amounts to one of the best Marvel films to date.
But “Panther” is still a Marvel film, and falls prey to many of the same issues that plague the entire MCU. A handful of scenes are noticeably out of rhythm, mired by an overactive editor. The problem is consistent through all two hours, and is most likely the result of the same kind of studio manipulation that you’d expected from Disney.
Several of the film’s biggest moments suffer severely as a result. It’s difficult to get wrapped up in drama and battle when lines sound literally cobbled together from three different recording sessions. The reported meddling did not stop at the sound booth, however, which calls into question just how much the audience is missing. “Black Panther” is a good movie. There is probably another version out there that is great, and you’ll have to buy the Blu-Ray to see it.
These criticisms are, of course, nitpicks. “Black Panther” is endlessly entertaining and meaningful despite a few technical flaws. Thematically, the film is a triumph that explores the beauty of pride and hope. And a film featuring an all-black cast breaking box office records is already a cultural watershed. That alone makes it worth watching, celebrating and then watching again.