By Evan Welsh
It is difficult to review a cultural moment, especially when that cultural moment does not really involve you. As a white male, I cannot speak for how black communities have responded to the phenomenon that is “Black Panther” or how well the film represents their communities.
However, I can say I personally appreciate how fresh and relevant “Black Panther” feels as a film. The breakaway from many of the conventions seen in the last decade of superhero films and director Ryan Coogler’s choice to focus on large, relevant questions of politics, ethics, nationality and race make for a film that sticks out from its peers. It seems promising that “Black Panther” will be a part of popular culture long into the future.
In the past decade, the movie-going population has been bombarded by Marvel films. Once or twice a year it seems we’re treated to a Marvel film that feels as if its sole purpose is to preserve continuity within the Marvel Extended Universe and promote future Marvel films. “Black Panther” feels singular and personal despite its incredibly large stage.
A major feature that divides “Black Panther” from other Marvel films, and other superhero films for that matter, is its focus on developed characters and dialogue about very real and relevant topics. Much of the film’s moral dialogue centers around questions that have been major issues in American foreign policy for quite some time: the question of interventionist and isolationist foreign policy, and whether or not it is the duty of those with resources to help those outside of their land who are oppressed. Circling these questions in the film are all the side characters who are decidedly more fully fleshed-out than what is common. They feel essential to the story and the film’s larger political discourse. These side characters include Killmonger, the best and most complete villain audiences have seen in a Marvel film and one of the better superhero villains in recent memory. Because “Black Panther” gives worthwhile time to its peripheral characters and decides to place lofty questions at its center, it feels more real than most modern superhero movies.
When I say “real,” what I mean is that “Black Panther” is grounded in real-world political, racial and economic problems that are very much part of our political debates right now. Beyond just large political and ethical questions, “Black Panther” also ponders the ideas of African lineage in America and the division and connection between African and American.
As I mentioned previously, I cannot speak to how the black community feels about representation within the film, but regardless of opinion on how well-done the representation in “Black Panther” is, the film offers roles for black actors in the superhero genre that have previously been unseen in pop culture.
My only real criticisms of the film are some moments that will give the audience trouble completely detaching “Black Panther” from the known tropes in the Marvel universe. Some missteps were a misplaced joke that will inevitably age the film (you’ll know it when you see it), PG-13 violence and gore that sometimes sticks out as unrealistic for the situation, and an always-awkward Stan Lee cameo for the sake of his own vanity.
Those nitpicks aside, “Black Panther” really is quite the achievement of a superhero film, and Ryan Coogler has proven with his two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” that he can tackle a challenge and create an amazing film regardless of the platform or size of the project.
I am personally very glad that this film seems to be having such a huge cultural impact. One, because its popularity means we get to talk about it more, and two, because it has the possibility to inform what other filmmakers do in the future with their superhero projects. “Black Panther” does an incredible job of effectively displaying a colorful and larger-than-life set visually while creating a narrative that feels more real and intimate than its peers. It is by far the best time I’ve had with a Marvel film since I don’t know when, and I have been thinking about the film’s themes and questions since I left the theater.