As Marvel and DC have continued their ongoing battle to produce the most-profitable and critically-acclaimed tentpole outings, many of the most recent superhero entries have taken the genre tentpole template and infused the often familiar formula into a larger message of social commentary and historical relevance. None has garnered quite as much attention for its action and serious subject matter as the 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), 2018’s Black Panther.
According to YouTuber Chris Stuckmann stated in his assessment of Black Panther:
This film did not just make another superhero movie. Marvel didn’t just take this material and say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make a movie where people fight and stuff blows up.’ There’s a message behind this film and one that’s very relevant. The best Marvel movies thus far have all been like that.
To many, the very idea that a superhero film dealing with such issues could still garner the across-the-board critical praises, while breaking box office records as it joined the “billion dollar” club in revenue, only proves audiences may be ready for harder hitting subject matter in their blockbusters.
Despite of—or because due to—Black Panther’s place within the MCU as the first major superhero entry featuring not only a black leading man, critically-praised Chadwick Boseman, but also a stellar ensemble of predominantly black actors – including Michael B. Jordan, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett – many critics were divided as to whether the film could solely be assessed for its own cinematic merits, rather than viewing its social significance as a crucial factor of its success.
In his own review of the film, YouTuber Tyrone Magnus claimed that it was possible to appreciate both aspects of Black Panther, and the fact that its social responsibility only added to his overall enjoyment.
I’m telling you there were people with all types of African garb, all types of different African cultures and markings, and the clothing and it was so fucking cool just to see all these black actors together in this type of movie—I’m telling you, it was powerful, for me as an African American, it was powerful to see this. It really felt good to see this unfold in front of me. From my point of view, it really felt good.
At Black Nerd Comedy, that feeling was echoed, as were the elements of African culture being a “fresh” take on the superhero’s origin through the heroic journey of T’Challa / Black Panther— something that was wholly enhanced by the quality of the production and characterization:
I look at this movie so much more as a ‘film,’ just as a good quality movie—and a lot of that has to go with the directing ... This movie is just so well done in emphasizing the world, in emphasizing the characters, emphasizing the style, the music that goes into the movie definitely complements how the movie works.
That same point was driven home by YouTuber Double Toasted, who affirmed that Black Panther’s quality stood on its own merits, making it a worthy entry in the MCU and a solid standalone film:
Even taking the ‘blackness’ out of it, this movie is firing on all cylinders—narratively and technically.
Of equal importance to many fans and critics was, aside from the socially-conscious emphasis on African American heritage, the sheer amount of feminist themes and participation of female artists used in the story and production—something almost as rare in a major studio blockbuster. Aside from the strong female leads played by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett, the film’s lavish design was led by nearly all-female artists; costume designer Ruth E. Carter, editor Debbie Berman, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, and production designer Hannah Beachler all received shout-outs for their unique take on the superhero epic.
YouTuber Tony Baker claimed to be as impressed with the inclusion of strong female roles in Black Panther’s inception as he was in its handling of modern cultural themes:
There’s a very strong female presence all throughout this movie. They weren’t just damsels in distress, they weren’t just love interests. They had meat to them—all of them … I think it’s just a great visual for women to see, for girls to see these type of women out there … It was refreshing.
But in its handling of so many important current topics in American culture, some commentators were not as simply divided on the film in its success or failure. Numerous critics and YouTubers argued that while more than admirable in its attempts at social commentary and self-awareness of its importance as more than just another superhero picture, but rather a major cultural event, Black Panther had moments of heavy-handedness, or murkiness in plot and execution as a film. As YouTuber Chris Stuckmann continued:
It felt like instead of hitting us right off the bat with some of the deeper issues in the film, they made a normal superhero movie for a while to get everyone else sort of into it; which was disappointing.
YouTuber Weasel Batches echoed that sentiment, but felt the heavy themes came at the cost of the movie’s story and overall success as an action film, adding:
There’s a good movie hidden somewhere in Black Panther but they ruined it with bad acting, terrible effects, and obnoxious characters and, overall, just really bad decisions.
In his overall negative review of the film, The Critical Drinker (who called it “the most overrated movie in the MCU ever”), asserted that the film nearly hit the marks that he had hoped for as an origin film, but fell short due to a juggling of the subject matter:
They wanted to make an important statement about black identity and the conflict between American reality and African heritage—but they don’t seem to know what they want to say about it.
The Critical Drinker continued,
There are so many things wrong with this movie that I could spend literally an hour breaking it down, but fundamentally, I think it comes down to wanting to have your cake and eat it.
But where The Critical Drinker saw an imbalance between the heavy themes of Black Panther and its action and plotting, others found that filmmaker Ryan Coogler was successful in his handling of all the film’s numerous tricky components. YouTuber Double Toasted, while partially agreeing with that consensus, found more to like than dislike, stating:
This movie does not hold back on [addressing racism]. There are moments where they call these people savages … When they go in, they talk about racism worldwide, and even to a point where I thought, for a Disney movie, maybe they would kind of passively mention it; but no, it’s angry.
YouTuber Chris Stuckmann concurred, adding:
What’s really honestly amazing about this film is that, looking back on it, I am not thinking about the action like I do with some Marvel movies—I’m not thinking about all those cool epic moments. I’m thinking about the things that shape these characters into who they become.
A wide majority of fans and commentators viewed Black Panther not only as a worthy standalone epic action movie, but made a point of indicating both its social significance and a hopeful influence that the film—and its success at the box office—could have in the future of Hollywood offerings. As YouTuber Black Nerd Comedy stated in his enthusiastic assessment of the movie:
I know some people are going to be like, ‘Oh, it’s a black movie—that’s why you’re all about it’ … But you got to understand, man, this has just not been done on this scale ... That’s what make it special, that’s what I love about it. And the fact that it’s a great movie on top of that, it’s just beautiful.
At the pop culture site, Fatman on Batman, co-host Marc Bernardin agreed with that assessment completely, adding that Black Panther could lead to a hopeful and healthy trend in Hollywood moviemaking, pushing socially-relevant subjects and honest portrayals of diversity into the mainstream:
Just the idea that you can create a piece of fiction, a culture that feels as real as that [Wakanda] does, that feels as lived-in as that does, and you give characters who all have motivations (except for one) and agency (except for one), and that it’s an inherently feminist story … This movie is two things: it is, and what it means. And what it is is pretty fucking great; but what it means is titanic … It will re-form the way Hollywood thinks about culture…