Maybe Ryan Coogler was always meant for action films. In Creed, Coogler uses long shots to follow characters through rooms, down hallways, framed in doorways from behind, seeing the geography of a scene as his characters do, at the same time that they do, defining the physicality of each scene while simultaneously mapping out the emotional landscape of the same by unblinkingly observing how his characters move throughout that space. Whether these long takes are staged or digitally edited together, it hardly matters: Rarely does Coogler draw attention to the artifice of what he’s doing—as opposed to a hollow spectacle like Birdman—intent instead on immersion.
For an action film in which the interior lives of characters necessarily motivate their external movements, violent or otherwise but mostly violent, the success of that action depends on understanding why things are happening, where and when. We must feel like we’re there in order to tap into the visceral sensation that allows action filmmaking to feel so cathartic, so balletic in its corpus-crushing choreography. Though the boxing rings and training gyms and small Philadelphian apartments of Creed are no doubt small, cramped spaces, Coogler suffuses each with familiarity, with an intuitive cartography. We don’t just know where we are and why—we understand that “where” and Coogler’s earned that “why” through the elegance of his visual architecture.
Compared to his previous meat-and-potatoes drama, Black Panther is almost (and obviously, given its place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe) incomprehensibly bigger, full of mythical figures and ambitious politics, at least within the confines of a tentpole $200 million Disney spectacle. The story of the new king of African nation Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), immediately following the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, begins with an animated sequence to describe the origins of his country and ends with a lesson on the disastrous consequences of nationalism, of “building walls” and isolationist thinking in our irrevocably global world. Wakanda, we’re told, began on the crash site of an ancient meteor, the contents of that otherworldly rock containing what’s later called vibranium, a metal which allowed Wakanda to develop hyper-modern technology long before the rest of the world. Though five tribes fought for dominance over the land and the precious metal it held, one man discovered a special flower impregnated with the vibranium’s “magic,” which when eaten gives the ingester superhuman powers. This man, the first Black Panther, united the five tribes, using the vibranium’s technology to (literally) hide his people from the rest of the world.
From there, the plot—written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, whose only other notable writing gig consisted of two episodes of the OJ American Crime Story—grows increasingly complicated, T’Challa undergoing the rigors of becoming the next Black Panther. This involves ritual combat, a hallucinatory drug trip and the assurance to his best friend, and leader of the military unit charged with protecting the sacred borders of Wakanda, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), that he’ll finally catch South American terrorist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the only man to successfully steal vibranium from Wakanda, killing W’Kabi’s father in the process. Though Wakanda’s a patriarchy, Coogler mostly excises men from most traditional roles, populating his advanced African nation with black women who are caretakers as often as they are generals, scientists and warriors. T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is both 16 years old and Wakanda’s top scientist (like Black Panther’s own Q), the engineer behind the country’s most advanced technological leaps, while Okoye (Danai Gurire) leads the Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s personal elite, all-female guard, and is pretty clearly, next to fellow Dora Milaje member Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Wakanda’s best fighter. Angela Bassett plays T’Challa’s mother, Romanda, and though she has little to do, she imbues every frame with quiet grace, enriching the film simply by existing within it.
In fact, the film’s namesake is the least interesting personality in Black Panther, a blank slate compared to his most trusted friends and advisors, a cipher whose value can only be understood when surrounded by the traditions, strength and courage of those he serves as king. That the most influential of those he serves are black women is nothing short of crucial for blockbuster filmmaking in 2018.
Ryan Coogler’s vision for Wakanda—shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison as an Afrofuturist paradise—rightly draws its inspiration from an omnibus of natural sources, just as a casino scene in South Korea affords Morrison the chance to go full Deakins (James Bond references all over this thing), imagining the world of the MCU as Steven Soderbergh might have scoped out Traffic, developing a fully sensual visual language to define the many locations of this world-hopping adventure without resorting to sterile maps or facile borders. Coogler of course isn’t as overt as Soderbergh in delineating the specific aesthetics of his different locales, just as the design of the Wakandans’ variations on tribal dress and makeup and hair and body scarring and martial choreography and maybe even accent can’t be tied to one specific cultural influence (though an early scene does namecheck Grace Jones in describing two bald-headed guards of the Dora Milaje). Instead, Coogler’s touch is so much lighter: If T’Challa’s whole narrative arc concerns the need for him to realize the importance of bringing Wakanda into our globalized world, of revealing its riches to a world that probably doesn’t deserve them, then the vastness of that world, the many different kinds of people who populate it, must be felt in all of its ungraspable diversity.
The true core of the film, then, is Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, mesmerizing), an “outsider” who isn’t, the traitor who collaborates with “colonizers,” his body demarcated in scars like his fellow Wakandan warriors but hybridized, acquired via the violence of American imperialism. A Wakandan with a claim to T’Challa’s throne, but ostracized by default for growing up in California, Killmonger spent his life fighting the U.S.’s wars, murdering countless people (including, he notes, people of color under U.S. occupation) in order to find his way to his estranged homeland and bring Wakanda’s technology to all of the oppressed people he’s seen all over the world.
Killmonger is obviously a villain—potentially the MCU’s first actually interesting one—but his intent is noble. He represents a systemic redistribution of power, but that power is ultimately dependent on violence, which in turn only perpetuates further oppression and inequality, which is why Killmonger (spoiler, but c’mon) fails, a victim of his own violent uprising. T’Challa’s response to Killmonger’s motives is to bring more than Wakanda’s weapons to the outside world, to bring the outside world knowledge born from their astounding technology; Ryan Coogler’s response to Killmonger’s motives is to insist that power, violence and oppression can’t be divorced from one another, which means that Wakanda’s isolationism is no longer tenable. To have the MCU’s first film helmed by a black director exist as, among many things, a trenchant exploration of cultural appropriation, and what that even means anymore, is to admit that maybe Black Panther is as good as we hoped it would be. As good, at least, as Creed promised this could be.
Black Panther might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre. Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa, Okoye and Nakia plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall. When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of. Cue magnificent Vince Staples track.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurire, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.