Black Panther ★★★½

When I first saw Black Panther I could not reconcile the tension between Ryan Coogler's narrative and thematic ambitions with the usual MCU shell-game mechanics of forever introducing new elements solely so they can pay off in future installments, along with the indefatigable ability to sand down individual directorial personalities into a generic house style. That at times still feels true here as it does in even the most expressive Marvel movies; coming off of his incredible staged and documented fight scenes in Creed, Coogler only occasionally captures the same flash and engagement in this film’s action, though wisely he finds ways to compartmentalize even the larger setpieces of the climax to bring things into individual close-quarters combat. Marvel movies are finally starting to ease off the desaturated faux-realism of the early, post-Nolan Batman days, but even so the most kaleidoscopic moments have been largely restricted to cosmic voyages or the occasional dive into the subatomic realm. What a joy it is to see this movie infused with so much color simply to better reflect its milieu, with the combination of traditional African dress and bright tech-utopian effects making for the most consistently chromatic Marvel feature to date.

Where I well and truly shortchanged the film was in giving it credit for just how deeply it considers its themes of post-colonialism and diaspora. Crucially, the core moral conflict is not between pacifism and violence but between technology-hoarding secrecy and radical domination, a gulf that sounds wider on paper but produces a more insoluble debate in the context of a hidden African superpower weighing the benefits of upending the centuries of black misery they tacitly condoned to maintain their own low profile. The “Killmonger is right” argument oversimplifies his brutality, to say nothing of the incredible complication of his US black ops training; incidentally the film’s most devastating critique of its otherwise weirdly positive depiction of a CIA agent comes when Ross calmly observes Killmonger’s instant, total destabilization of Wakanda and notes that he’s following all of his training. Even so, the final scene between the villain and hero, with Killmonger firmly, if somewhat sadly, refusing an offer of help and imprisonment as he sits and watches the sunset and requests to be buried at sea with all the abducted Africans who chose to die rather than live in bondage, is an almost unfathomable sight in Hollywood, much less a Disney movie.

Jake liked this review