'Black Panther': Not your average superhero movie
Even just from the trailers it was obvious to the world that “Black Panther” was going to be aesthetically amazing. The costuming and the architecture of Wakanda is as beautiful as it is detailed, and the soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar arguably trumps that of “Guardians of the Galaxy” as the best Marvel music to date. Now that the movie has dropped, its ambitious plot and fully realized characters have critics fawning as it has become clear that “Black Panther” has much more on other superhero films than just aesthetic.
When comic-related movies come out, I admit that I usually hold them to different standards than I do basically all other forms of cinema. The fact that they have become mainstream enough for me to have them at all feels like some sort of glitch in the matrix that the universe could easily correct if I do too much complaining. Instead, I just pretend not to notice that the antagonist in 90 percent of these films is just the same megalomaniac copied and pasted into a quirky new costume with each new script.
Hela, Ronan the Accuser, Ares, that sickly space elf, Steppenwolf, Red Skull, omnipotent deadbeat dad, Ultron, Dormammu and his cosmic death cult, the Enchantress—there’s a limit to how many times you can use “complete monster who wants to take over and/or destroy the world” before it stops being effective, and we reached that limit about nine movies ago. (And yes, occasionally exchanging “the world” with “the universe” still counts.) The further an antagonist is pushed away from comprehensible motivations to just a maniacal desire for domination, the less they have to offer the narrative. These villains rarely come across as more than CGI-coated potholes on the hero’s road to victory.
Michael B. Jordan’s sympathetic portrayal of Erik Killmonger raises the bar by a lot, and not because he’s the most powerful villain or because his plans are the most destructive. Killmonger is an incredibly determined and well-trained individual, but he’s no all-powerful monster, and he’s not trying to destroy the world. Rather, he’s trying to save it. The conflict of “Black Panther” isn’t just “superhero has to stop the big bad from destroying the world as we know it." Instead, it's a realistic struggle between two understandable yet opposing viewpoints. Not only are the characters of hero and villain developed alongside each other, but T’Challa’s interactions with Killmonger make him a better hero.
“Black Panther” is important for a lot reasons. It’s widely seen as a revolutionary representation of black characters and culture, a resounding financial success in the face of long-seated Hollywood misconceptions about what can and can’t be a blockbuster, and, perhaps even more miraculously, a mainstream action film that effectively tackles the issues of colonialism and structural oppression.
More than that, by including what is arguably the best villain that superhero movies have seen, “Black Panther" overcomes a major shortcoming of the genre. It isn’t just great for a superhero movie—it’s a great movie, period.