Wakanda is the most important part of “Black Panther.” Ryan Coogler’s superhero action movie is a rock solid thrill ride, but it is in the look of Wakanda where the film truly shines. For years, we’ve been getting a very specific depiction of Africa. We’ve been told that it’s a wartorn continent, where everyone lives in poverty and disease, barely able to survive. Not to say that this isn’t true, but it does deny African citizens from being people with a strong sense of culture. When you’re reduced to a symbol of poverty, people will tend to gloss over what makes your community unique and special. In the design of Wakanda, Coogler takes elements of African culture and blows them up for the big screen, creating a world that is beautifully realized and rich with detail.
One of the main reasons that Wakanda works so well as a setting is the lack of exposition. A lesser movie (such as many Marvel movies) will try to explain away any strange or unusual parts of its world with a massive word dump that feels like it was ripped straight from a Wikipedia article. However, Coogler tells us about Wakandan culture and lifestyle in an incredibly visual manner. When T’Challa is challenged to a duel for the throne, we aren’t explicitly told this is the case-we just know. When T’Challa is submerged in a pit of sand in order to communicate with his dead ancestors, we aren’t told this is the case – – we just know. It turns Wakanda into a fascinating place, one that rewards repeat viewings.
The score is another standout here. Much has been made of Kendrick Lamar’s album for the film, but, honestly, only about three tracks are used. It makes sense, especially considering the film’s PG-13 rating. That being said, the actual score is just as much a standout. Imbued with a strong African influence, incorporating drum beats with the flourishing strings of classic Hollywood, “Black Panther” stands apart as having the only memorable score in a Marvel movie.
The story of “Black Panther” works incredibly well too. Writing some of the most interesting characters in the Marvel canon, Coogler manages to stitch together a compelling tale that adds an emotional weight to all the crazy set pieces. In “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa was more of a mysterious cipher than a well-rounded character. In Black Panther, Coogler brings T’Challa’s grief and self-doubt front and center, writing a compelling hero’s journey that truly earns every moment of catharsis. It’s well-trodden territory, but that’s easy to ignore when it’s done so well.
The villain is surprisingly well-written too. Killmonger (dumb name, I know) isn’t just “good enough for a Marvel movie,” he’s legitimately compelling, with a sympathetic backstory and a goal that feels real and understandable. Michael B. Jordan is the real standout performer here. He’s able to channel so much impotent rage and anger. He makes us understand that Killmonger is more than just a dastardly villain, he’s a young man who’s angry at an unfair world. His methods of reacting to this unfairness are certainly immoral, but it’s a testament to the writing and acting of this film that we still manage to maintain an emotional connection with him throughout.
The film isn’t perfect, however. Andy Serkis is really fun to watch, but his storyline felt like a pointless waste of time. I’d have preferred to cut his part out in order to focus more on Killmonger. Additionally, the CGI can be pretty spotty at times, especially during the action sequences. Near the end of the film, the effects honestly got so distracting with how unconvincing and rubbery they looked.
That being said, once we reach the prologue of the film, “Black Panther” is able to restore any goodwill it may have lost. Taking the fantastical trappings of the superhero genre and placing it in the real world, the film has a newfound relevance. Here, it cements T’Challa as a true hero, one that can be looked up to not because he can blow up half of Fifth Avenue, but because he truly cares about other people. More than any other superhero in the MCU, T’Challa puts in the unglamorous and hard work to make the rest of the world a better place. And in an era where action heroes try to solve problems with their fists, this in and of itself is commendable.