Edwin Arnaudin: Black Panther is the first Marvel Studios movie made by a predominately African American crew and featuring a cast composed almost exclusively of people of color. As with last year’s female-led Wonder Woman, this elevation of an underrepresented group into the spotlight is a welcome step forward and is being met with extremely positive reviews from viewers and critics alike. Is Ryan Coogler’s film truly that great or does its status as a sign of progress inflate a very good film to a level it doesn’t quite earn?
Bruce Steele: It’s a great superhero film, on a level with Wonder Woman. It breaks new ground in representation not only racially, but geographically, since it’s set in Africa (albeit in a fictional country). And it’s “about something,” meaning that the central conflict is between more-or-less realistic humans, with tangible roots in current events — something it has in common with last year’s better-than-average Spider-man: Homecoming. It’s full of supernatural elements, but it’s not superheroes fighting aliens or exaggerated supervillains. I thought it earned its hype in that respect. Did you?
Edwin: It’s definitely working on its own wavelength, thanks to the previously unseen Marvel mix of the elements you mention. From the dialect and traditions of Wakanda, to the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack and Tony-Stark-on-steroids technology, I like that it has a distinct personality. It also features a good deal of visual artistry courtesy of Coogler, who combines the deft personal interactions of his Fruitvale Station with the knack for combat honed in Creed — this time without the distraction of a marble-mouthed Sylvester Stallone.
Bruce: Coogler’s work is exemplary — although I’m sorry we saw it in 3D, which was not on the director’s mind and just makes the movie look darker than it should. I intend to go back for a full-brightness 2D showing soon.
Edwin: An early jungle scene with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his former flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is so shadowy it’s nearly impossible to identify anyone but the two stars. There’s also an ambitious, extended fight in a South Korean underground casino that’s marred by shaky handheld camerawork, but otherwise I have few qualms with the production value. What action scenes stand out for you?
Bruce: The final battle is terrific. Without giving anything away, I can say it’s visceral and grounded in a way that a lot of Marvel finales are not. Again, the movie keeps the focus on humans, not fancy weapons or mass destruction. You gotta love General Okoye (Danai Gurira) and her highly disciplined Wakanda women warriors, whose weapon of choice is a high-tech spear. Okoye leaps immediately to the top rank of Marvel sidekicks. Heck, I’d give her her own movie in a hot minute, wouldn’t you?
Edwin: Gurira is quite good, but unless your proposed film is a prequel that delves into Okoye’s rise to General status, I prefer her in a supporting role. Other than her badassery and fierce loyalty, about the only thing we know about her is that she’s in love with W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), chief of a rhino-raising tribe within the unified Wakanda. But much as I like seeing the Get Out Oscar nominee, I found W’Kabi's sudden disappointment with T’Challa’s handling of mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, sans motion-capture) — a decision crucial to the rest of the film’s events — fairly weak.
Bruce: I had W’Kabi pegged from the minute he showed up, meaning either his role was something of a cliché or Kaluuya telegraphed it well. I was less prepared for the twists and turns in Michael B. Jordan’s role as one of Ulysses’ nefarious allies – happily so. I missed Creed in theaters, but this movie made me want to check it out. What did you think of the casting of British ex-hobbit Martin Freeman as an American CIA agent?
Edwin: I bought it. As is often the case, a Brit with an American accent succeeds, as opposed to heading the other way across the Atlantic. There's also just the right amount of Bilbo/Gollum chatter and I think Serkis’ South African inflections work well, too. And we haven’t even mentioned Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown and Winston Duke — plus Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s humorous tech-savvy sister Shuri. Just under three months from the seemingly overstuffed Avengers: Infinity War, is this the best cast yet in an MCU film?
Bruce: It’s a pretty great cast. So elated to see Bassett back, fabulous hats and white locks and all — and she actually has something to do. I’d also single out Letitia Wright as someone to watch. I think one thing that’s special about this movie is the balance between acting and special effects. There’s tons of CG — most of Wakanda, those rhinos, flying machines, Panther jumps, weapons, battles, and on and on. But the CG is generally in service to the people in the foreground – even though the credits look like Disney hired every FX outfit known to man. Speaking of credits: A reminder to viewers to stay until the bitter end.
Edwin: The lone review I read — heard, technically — prior to seeing Black Panther had me concerned that the effects work would be more of the same big-budget spectacle that often blurs from one MCU film to the next. But overall, I found the CGI exciting and think it’s used to largely freshen familiar sequences like car chases. And yes, one would think nearly 10 years after Iron Man that folks wouldn’t need a reminder to remain seated for at least one tag scene. Do the two here have you pumped for Infinity War, plus July’s Ant-Man and the Wasp (whose pre-Panther trailer made me laugh more times than the first Ant-Man) and whatever else follows?
Bruce: I’m cautiously optimistic for another Avengers movie, which one would think could easily surpass Age of Ultron. But it’s going to be so crowded with characters that it could be more like an awards show than a movie. Let’s hope most of the newbies are reduced to roles the size of Spider-man and Ant-Man in Civil War. And hell yes to another Ant-Man, especially with Evangeline Lilly turned into The Wasp. For all the enthusiasm we’re sharing, though, let’s wrap up with a reality check: Is Black Panther great moviemaking? Or is it just a really good Marvel chapter that will soon blur into all the others?
Edwin: There’s a lot to praise, but unless the rest of the year’s film slate is total crap, it won’t be anywhere near my Top 10. Few Marvel entries leave lasting impressions and I’m struggling to think of much here that’ll stick with me. It’s a very good superhero movie — not on the level of a Christopher Nolan Dark Knight stunner, but strong enough to recommend without hesitation. I give it a B-plus.
Bruce: I’m pretty sure it will make my top 40, at least! I agree that it doesn’t reconceive the genre as the Dark Knight movies did, but I think this movie hits the bullseye on what makes a good, emotionally anchored superhero movie, as I also thought about Spider-man: Homecoming. And it merits extra points not for “diversity,” but for picking exactly the artists and actors it needed to tell this story. It’s rare that I plan to go back for a second theater visit, so it earns an A-minus from me.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Walt Disney Studios)