The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chapter 18: ‘Black Panther’
In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.
Chapter 18: Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Release Date: February 16, 2018
U.S. box office: $681 million (and counting)
Worldwide box office: $1.3 billion (and counting)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 96 percent
Metacritic score: 88
Letterboxd average grade: 4.0
My Original Review
“Black Panther isn’t just a message movie; it’s also a magnificent piece of eye candy. The costumes, sets, special effects, and cinematography are all wildly inventive and gorgeously colorful. There’s some new gadget or vehicle or shot to admire in every single sequence. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun just sitting and looking at a movie.” - Read more here.
What Holds Up
This is a movie with war rhinos. How could it not hold up?
There is so much great stuff and so many great people in Black Panther, that I feel like half the amazing things in it were completely overlooked during the first wave of discussion about the film — like the war freaking rhinos that show up in the big final fight between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), his rival for the throne of the African nation of Wakanda. The rhinos don’t come out of nowhere; they’re introduced earlier in the film in a scene between T’Challa and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). But when they show up to wreak havoc, we’re already in the midst of a battle that includes a superhero, a super-villain, at least two armies with a third on the way, a battalion of badass Secret Service women called the Dora Milaje, a woman who can shoot laser blasts from the metal panthers on her hands, and a dude remote-controlling a highly-advanced spaceship from a pile of sand. That’s a lot of stuff for one scene without the war rhinos. And then the war rhinos show up!
Obviously, Black Panther represents an important step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and for Hollywood in general — in terms of diversity and onscreen representation. That was an undeniable element of its success. But as I wrote in my original review, I think it’s also important to note how absolutely entertaining it is as well. It is bursting at the seams with ideas, characters, and technology (and, yes, war rhinos).
A lot of the pleasure of the MCU is in seeing images and people and stuff recur; Iron Man popping up to mentor Spider-Man; the Tesseract from Captain America becoming the MacGuffin of The Avengers. Black Panther turns that dynamic on its head. What makes this movie cool is that it gives us so much stuff that we have never seen before in a Marvel movie (up to and including its predominantly black cast). Wakanda’s technology makes Tony Stark’s armor look like Zack Morris’ cell phone; clunky and outdated. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) provides her brother with all kinds of incredible gadgets, like holographic communicators, portable EMPs, and a costume that absorbs kinetic energy and then redirects it out in beautiful bursts of purple power.
Marvel is built on a foundation of nostalgia; the comics and characters you loved as a kid brought to life bigger and better than your childhood imagination could have ever conceived. Black Panther is more concerned with showing something new. That’s not to say some percentage of the audience didn’t grow up reading Black Panther comics, or that this movie can’t scratch that itch for them too. But director Ryan Coogler wasn’t looking back with this movie — he was looking forward. And that’s what this movie delivers more than anything else.
What Doesn’t Hold Up
My only major complaint on a second viewing of Black Panther is the same as the first time I saw the film: A lot of the action is surprisingly poor.
This is the dirty little secret of Marvel movies: They’re action films in which the action is quite often one of the weakest elements. There are exceptions, like the end of the first Avengers or some of the hand-to-hand stuff in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But a lot of the fighting in Marvel movies is too heavily edited with too much shaky-cam to appreciate it. Chris Evans recently posted videos of his training for The Winter Soldier on Twitter, and they’re really cool but all I could think was: Why don’t they just shoot the action like this? These Twitter videos are 10 seconds long — way longer than basically every shot in the finished sequence.
In the case of Black Panther, the film opens with T’Challa and the leader of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira), stopping a convoy of soldiers trafficking women through Nigeria. Black Panther stops them, but the whole sequence takes place at night in a dark jungle. The fast cuts, lack of light, and a hero dressed entirely in black make it almost impossible to see what’s happening. Next there’s a sequence where T’Challa defends his throne from a challenger, M’Baku (Winston Duke). This fight is a little better (at least it takes place during the daytime), but it’s still very chaotic. A shootout in a Korean underground casino’s not bad; the car chase that comes right after it is even better. But then the first struggle between T’Challa and Killmonger is more of the same choppy, hard-to-follow punches and stabs.
The final battle does have war rhinos, and some of the small-scale skirmishes are pretty good. By that point, though, it’s too little, too late. This is particularly disappointing because Ryan Coogler’s last movie, Creed, was an awesome action movie, with some of the best choreographed and shot boxing matches of any film of the last 25 years. I’m honestly not sure what changed between that and Black Panther, but something clearly did, and not for the better.
Best Marvel Easter Egg
When T’Challa brings an injured CIA agent (Martin Freeman, back from Captain America: Civil War) to his sister Shuri’s lab, she quips “Praise! Another broken white boy to fix!” It’s a funny line even if you’ve never seen any of the past 17 Marvel movies, but fans know she’s referring to Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Captain America’s best bud turned brainwashed Hydra assassin, the Winter Soldier. At the end of Civil War, Cap and Buck decamp to Wakanda, where the latter agrees to be put back into suspended animation until a cure for his mental condition can be found.
Shuri’s joke is the first allusion to Bucky in Black Panther, and sure enough he turns up in the film’s second and final post-credits scene, where he’s seen back out of the deep freeze and finally free of his Hydra programming. Based on the film’s trailers, it looks like he plays an important role fighting alongside Captain America and Black Panther in Avengers: Infinity War. If you want more Marvel Easter eggs from Black Panther, watch this video:
Do you really need me to tell you at this point that Black Panther is great? It’s the third-biggest movie ever in the United States! Fine, it’s great. A few dodgy action beats aside, this is A+ blockbuster moviemaking; funny, exciting, inspiring, cool, and gorgeous. (The colors, particularly on the “ancestral plane” where T’Challa receives counsel from his late father, are absolutely stunning.)
It also has the best villain in the MCU in the justifiably furious Killmonger. His goals are fairly stock — world domination — but his motivations are unique. In his own twisted way, he’s right about Wakanda, which has refused to share its advanced technology with the rest of the world even though giving it to those in need would have surely saved thousands upon thousands of lives. (Shuri has Freeman’s should-have-been-permanently-paralyzed-after-a-gunshot-to-the-spine Everett Ross up and walking in a matter of hours, to give just one example.) Part of T’Challa’s journey in the film is defeating Killmonger and reclaiming his throne. The other part is recognizing that his enemy is actually making some good points, even if his plans are monstrous.
I don’t think it is an accident that Killmonger’s origin — his father was murdered, and he was orphaned, and so he trained his body to become the ultimate weapon — is essentially Batman’s origin as well. When you’re rich and have all the advantages in the world and that kind of stuff happens to you, you can become Batman. When you’re from a rough part of Oakland, and you’ve got no money and your family forgets about you, you become Killmonger. The system isn’t fair. And that’s part of what makes the end of Black Panther so poetic and poignant. I love its symmetry; the film opens with a flashback where the Wakandans arrive in Oakland under cover of darkness and it concludes in the present, where T’Challa unveils his technology for all the world to see on the exact same spot in broad daylight. This is his way of truly listening to his ancestors and trying to fix their mistakes.
Black Panther is the final entry in this History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe column. When I gave myself this assignment a couple months ago, it was for a couple reasons. One, with two small children at home, I remember almost nothing about some of these movies (along with most of my day-to-day life) and I wanted to refresh my memory before Infinity War came out. Rewatching them also gave me the opportunity to make more stuff for the site, like a ranking of every film in the MCU and the gallery below of non-Marvel movie references in Marvel films .
But more than anything else I wanted to look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Taken as an 18-part story, how does it hold up? Overall, pretty well. There are definitely some weaker chapters, and there’s a stretch there in the early going where I was really questioning my life choices. (What’s up, Incredible Hulk?) Still, this is a strong collection of movies that, for the most part (for the most part!), have been very carefully constructed to fit together and flow from one to the next.
James Cameron made headlines last weekend for “slamming” Marvel at a press event for his new television series, saying “I’m hoping we’ll start getting Avengers fatigue here pretty soon. Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process.” First of all, as the guy who made The Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic, James Cameron has the right to voice any opinion he wants, about Marvel or anything else in the world of film. And after watching 18 Marvel movies over the course of a couple weeks, I can definitely relate to the feeling of Marvel fatigue! I am really looking forward to not watching any more Marvel movies (until tonight, when I see Avengers: Infinity War).
All that said, Black Panther shows that there is still a lot of life left in this cinematic universe, and a lot left it can do in the hands of the right creators. Because Black Panther is still in theaters, I had to get a ticket to rewatch it for this column. I went to a sold out Friday night show. Everyone around me laughed and cheered along with the film. At a certain point, I noticed a boy, probably around 10 years old, sitting with his family directly behind me, in a full Iron Man costume. Occasionally, I would turn around and sneak a glance at him to see how he was processing the movie. When Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o kissed he groaned and covered his dad’s eyes. During the big final battle, he sat with his jaw so wide open I could see the reflected light from the screen dancing on his tonsils.
That sort of completely genuine, completely engrossed reaction is a beautiful thing. And truth be told, I was right there with that kid most of the way. I mean, c’mon; war rhinos! Who doesn’t love that?