Black Panther isn't just politically conscious, but is also a fantastic pop culture artifact

By Leigh Monson
    Black Panther was always going to be a big deal, not just as a piece in the perpetual motion machine of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but as a piece of representative art for a community that doesn't often see themselves represented in Hollywood productions of this scale.
   This isn't the first black-led superhero film, but it is perhaps the highest profile ever given to a film so celebratory of black American culture and its African roots, which in itself feels revelatory as a breath of creative fresh air in a genre commonly bemoaned as resting too much on comfortable laurels. So Black Panther really only had to exist in order to make a big impact, but writer-director Ryan Coogler (previously known for reviving the Rocky franchise with Creed) has delivered something both viscerally exciting and politically pointed so as to make a power fantasy with black audiences in mind but has a lot to say to everyone else as well.
   Following the death of his father, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is poised to take the mantle of the Black Panther and ascend to the throne of Wakanda, a futuristic, technologically advanced African country hidden from the rest of the world for the purpose of preserving their culture. One of T'Challa's first struggles as king is to capture a criminal (Andy Serkis) responsible for stealing some of the country's precious vibranium, the metal primarily responsible for the nation's technologically advanced state. However, in the course of his investigation, he discovers a mysterious American (Michael B. Jordan) who may have ties to Wakanda. With the help of one of the kingdom's top spies (Lupita Nyong'o), the head of the royal guard (Danai Gurira), and his technologically inventive sister (Letitia Wright), T'Challa must protect his kingdom from outside discovery and corruption, while figuring out exactly what that means in the process.
   Black Panther has a lot to say about the place of black identity in a globalized culture, expressed not only in the explicit textual conflict between culturally preserving isolationism and globalist philanthropy, but also in addressing the identities of the descendants of slaves in the United States. There is a constant push and pull between characters in defining themselves in relation to their heritage and the circumstances of their birth, and in Michael B. Jordan's character in particular it makes for one of the most complicated and surprisingly sympathetic villains ever conceived in the superhero film.
   It certainly doesn’t hurt that Black Panther is such a gorgeous film to look at. Stylistically there is a devoted commitment to the aesthetic of afrofuturism—the science fictional exercise of imagining African cultural and technological advancement free from the influence of European colonialism—that makes for something rarely if ever seen in mainstream cinema, and it's all captured in very rich hues of purple and orange by cinematographer Rachel Morrison (currently nominated for an Oscar for her work on Mudbound).
   She captures exciting action that offers novel takes on car chases, one-on-one weapon brawls, and battlefield combat, so even if the film weren't offering some remarkably complex thematic meat to chew on, it still acts as a viscerally entertaining piece of popcorn entertainment.
   Black Panther isn't a perfect film—some characters feel underserved by the limited space of a two-hour runtime, though not debilitatingly so—but it is an undeniably important one. Even if you aren't a member of the community the film is specifically aiming to represent, there is a very entertaining piece of pop culture on display here that offers a glimpse at perspectives not often seen in globally-aimed cinema. It only helps that a great film was built on that conviction.

4.5/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.