I’m not here to review Black Panther. The movie is a critical and commercial success, and I can’t think of anything in it that could have been done better. What I am here to do is talk about why this movie works. Let’s get right to it.
Killmonger is Marvel’s best villain, although Loki is in the conversation (if you’d still consider him a villain). One problem with Marvel’s movies has been that the stakes feel low. We know our main character will emerge mostly fine, hell, we’ve seen the previews for the next film.
We knew this going into Black Panther, but with Killmonger, director Ryan Coogler created a villain so compelling that the tension became about the villain’s fate. Killmonger was a bad guy, an extremist who shot his own girlfriend in the head without hesitation to get what he wanted, but we knew what happened to make him that way and, from a certain perspective, we sympathized with his motives. Plus, Michael B. Jordan played him to perfection.
Ryan Coogler has quickly become the best director of blockbuster movies within established commercial franchises. Exhibit 1: Creed. Exhibit 2: Black Panther. I knew Coogler was talented when I saw his tragic 2013 indie drama Fruitvale Station, but I didn’t know he could make Rocky and Marvel movies that stood with the best cinema has to offer.
I saw Black Panther Thursday and tried to see it again Sunday, but all the shows in Sacramento were sold out. So, I re-watched Creed instead, and I realized Coogler has a toolbox of techniques he draws from to make his work stand out within a big money studio series.
Here they are:
He tells the audience what his movie is about, from start to finish, in the first five minutes: this is a literary technique, one best done in To Kill a Mockingbird, within which the start of a story foreshadows its plot. He did it in Creed with Adonis fighting impossible odds because of his father, and he did it in Black Panther with the story of Wakanda’s wealth followed by a cut to impoverished Oakland where a king ignores others’ plight in favor of isolationism. It’s tone setting at its best.
He makes the audience uncomfortable: the fights in Creed are ugly, there’s a lot of talk of boxers struggling to wipe their asses, etc. In Black Panther, Coogler dives into the idea that powerful civilizations (America specifically) have long been built by subjugated lower classes while future generations ignore their culpability. Basically, he makes you think while you're watching yet another CGI slugfest.
He makes films that standalone: Black Panther and Creed can both be enjoyed if you’ve never seen another Marvel or Rocky movie (though both are better if you have), because rather than use established worlds as crutches, Coogler’s movies put character drama at the center.
He casts even bit parts with super talented (often underused) actors: there are almost too many examples to count, but see Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Sterling K. Brown in Black Panther, and see Wood Harris in Creed.
I saw Kendrick Lamar in concert at a small venue on his Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City tour (yes, I’m bragging and also I should have put music on that list above, damn), and between songs, Kendrick talked about how he’d brought his music mainstream rather than trying to make music he thought the mainstream would like. Coogler does the same thing with his movies.
He’s brought the perspective he grew up with as a black male from Richmond, Calif. to two franchises traditionally dominated by white directors, writers, and actors. The expert storytelling is why this movie succeeds, of course, but it’s still important to note that in 2018 audiences are anxious for new stories from different perspectives and Coogler has consistently delivered that. Here’s hoping the success of Black Panther results in a Lando film over at Star Wars or a John Stewart Green Lantern film at DC (provided, of course, they’re done as well as Coogler did this one).
So, there. Oddly, this blog took longer to write than any other piece on this website (even though it’s one of the shortest) because writing about film is not something I enjoy or ever do. I doubt I’ll do it again, frankly, but I had a lot to say about this one. Besides, any excuse to talk, read, or think more about Black Panther, this week right?