While I wouldn’t call any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies bad, I think the quality slipped in recent years. 2014 saw the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, two of the best movies they have released. Since then, though, Marvel has not exactly struggled, but I would call the next half dozen movies middle of the road output for them. There is a certain level of polish that all of their movies have that never left, but none of those movies really stuck with me. Last Falls Thor Ragnarok pushed things to a new level, finally giving Chris Hemsworth a movie fully worthy of his God of Thunder. With Black Panther, Marvel may be at the start of a trend. Black Panther stands with the very best superhero movies ever made.
The Thor movies are a good reference for Black Panther, because they are doing a lot of the same things. Black Panther does them successfully the first time. The Thor movies have a lot to do with the politics of a fantasy land, with a young prince having to determine how he will rule and dealing with a fractured family situation. Black Panther does all these things as well, only it does them better. The political situation of Wakanda is clearer than that of Asgard, as is T’Challa’s struggle compared to Thor’s. The Thor movies, though, focused almost solely on the ruling family and their close allies. Though I liked the first two Thor movies, Ragnarok was the first one that I completely effectively portrayed the family dynamics. Black Panther deals more with state of the nation of Wakanda, though family certainly comes into play.
Black Panther also displays amazing range. A lot of movies have trouble doing one thing well, Black Panther works in at least two modes at a very high level. In Wakanda, T’Challa is caught up in essentially a fantasy epic; the story there shares more with Lord of the Rings than with Iron Man. It is among the most effective fantasy epics ever put to film. But there is also a detour to South Korea to play out a mini-spy thriller; the movie turns into a James Bond movie for thirty minutes. What is most amazing that it manages to weld these two concepts together almost flawlessly. The various parts of the movie support each other. The Seoul sequence lets T’Challa see his policies in action, letting him be more sure or less, as the case may be, of his actions when he returns to Wakanda. It creates a movie that feels remarkable assured of itself.
That is not even going into the wealth of interesting characters the movie introduces. Somehow Coogler creates the best, most nuanced villain in a Marvel movie with a character named Killmonger. Another highlight is Shuri, T’Challa’s super-genius sister. Or M’Baku, leader of rival Wakandan tribe who challenges Black Panther. All of these characters come from the comics, but the movie does an amazing job of adapting the into a cohesive story.
There are other ways in which Black Panther is a complete triumph that I am not really capable of or inclined to weigh in on, though I do feel compelled to acknowledge their existence. Judging it solely on how successful it is compared to other Marvel movies, or other superhero movies in general, or among all blockbuster movies, Black Panther stands near the top. This is one of the best.