My biggest problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and with a lot of blockbuster filmmaking in general, is that it’s all so cold and calculated. Films that should be exhilarating and exciting are instead micromanaged and focused grouped to death, stifling creativity and resulting in bland end products. Sure, MCU films are competent, and I certainly wouldn’t call them bad (maybe except for Iron Man 2), but at this point, it’s just all so stale to me. Hell, now my opening paragraphs for MCU films are starting to sound rote, because my biggest hang-up is that I just want to watch one and say, “Wow. That was actually really good and a little bit different.” When will that be? 

In Africa exists an isolated country known as Wakanda. Around for thousands of years, it has grown into a technical and economic powerhouse, but poses as a third world country requesting no aid in order to remain secluded. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of Wakanda, recently ascending to the throne after his father’s death. Being king also means you get a sleek costume with cool tech and get to call yourself Black Panther. As T’Challa tries to rule his new kingdom and make it his own, outside forces led by black-ops soldier Erik (Michael B. Jordan) attempt to invade and take over. 

Sounds like your typical MCU film, right? Well, the bad guy never tries to destroy the Earth, or anything stupid like that, so we’re on the right track so far! What we have here with Black Panther felt more creative and mature than anything seen from the MCU in a long while. The best part is? It tells its own story. Sure, it obviously has its connections to the MCU, but like Spider-Man: Homecoming, it wisely uses those connections to add to its own narrative, rather than just build up to the next film. As shoehorned in as he was, T’Challa was one of the more interesting parts of Captain America: Civil War (a film I didn’t care for), mostly due to Chadwick Boseman’s excellent performance. I’ve been a fan ever since his turn as Jackie Robinson in 42, and he gets plenty of opportunities to show off here. T’Challa is an interesting character not because he wants to save the world, but because of his conflict on how to handle being a ruler. He respects his father, but knowns he needs to eventually run everything in his own way. 

It feels like we have actual characters here with real depth and dilemmas, not just vessels to adapt this superhero to the big screen. That even goes for the antagonist, who is more often than not a weak link in these films. When I thought Erik was going to be another generic baddie that’s just the polar opposite of T’Challa, some revelations and plot turns down the line proved that not to be the case. Despite his silly name, Erik doesn’t just feel like a genuine threat, but like a real person. He has a damaged backstory, warping his views of the world. Him and T’Challa come from completely different backgrounds and worldviews, but they both hold experiences the other will never know. Michael B. Jordan, another one of my favorite up and coming actors, kills it in the role, brings the right amount of depth and emotion to make him just more than your typical comic book villain. During the climax, I wasn’t just invested in T’Challa’s fate, but also Erik’s. 

With Erik being an American, his character almost acts as a conduit to explore some of the film’s themes, such as racial inequality, immigration, cultural identity, and government corruption. While it was surprising to have themes like this in an MCU film, the most shocking thing about it is that it didn’t feel hamfisted or heavy handed. Most of the themes are just simple lines of dialogue in conversation, and they not only influence the plot, but also the characters. It’s not just political commentary for the sake of it. The themes felt very naturally woven in to where it really elevated the proceedings. The movie isn’t here just to entertain. It encourages you to actually feel, and maybe even think, about something. These are the types of themes that are dealt with in co-writer/director Ryan Coogler’s other films Fruitvale Station and CreedBlack Panther doesn’t dive as deep into the themes like those, but I enjoyed seeing them be presented in a comic book film made by Disney, of all the soulless studios.

Coogler is a true talent with a lot of style, and as great as he is at that, it seemed pretty evident that this is his first big budget picture. This is a comic book film after all, so you of course have to all of the action, humor, and “wow” moments, which made the film feel overstuffed. There were a few too many characters and there was a lot going on, especially during the climax, which I found oddly reminiscent of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. At worst, the film is inconsistent. Some of the action was fun, but some of it confusingly shot and edited. It’s certainly less humorous than other MCU films, but there are still some groaner one liners. Some of the cinematography looks great, some of it still looks like a cheap TV show. The soundtrack is an odd mix off traditional African music and contemporary rap music, giving it a bit of an identity crisis. The production design, costume design, and effects were all spectacular, though. It was definitely a visual treat, featuring loads of creativity, despite the ride being bumpy. 

While Black Panther isn’t groundbreaking or anything truly special in the grand scheme of comic book films, it certainly felt refreshing. That’s really all I needed. I’m sick of watching comic book films with no excitement or meaning, being nothing but a set-up for Film #56/3952. What we have here is a rare MCU film that mostly stands on its own, telling its own story that relates to the character, and not just the franchise. It’s exciting, has great character work, an engrossing narrative, and has some welcome thematic depth.  Sure was nice to not have a dramatic scene punctuated by a stupid joke for once. When head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige actually lets the creator be creative, we get a comic book film that dares to do things a little different. I’m sure we’ll be back to the same old crap in Avengers: Infinity War, though. 


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