It’s probably not fair to say that Black Panther, the Marvel blockbuster that’s already one of the most popular superhero movies of all time, is most interested in its instantly and rightfully praised villain, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. The exploits of the movie’s title hero (Chadwick Boseman) and various members of his team are also throughly, lovingly captured by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. But something does happen whenever the movie cuts over to Jordan’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens: The scenes snap Coogler, and by extension his audience, out of the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe reverie of affection and amusement, bringing them to sharper attention.
This may be unique to an MCU project, but it’s not that unusual for Coogler’s films, in part because he’s a terrific filmmaker, and maybe also because all three of them—Black Panther, Creed, and Fruitvale Station—feature Jordan. It’s not just a case of the camera loving Jordan, though he does have some of that innate star quality. Coogler seems especially fascinated by the actor’s confidence—his lack of obvious attempts to ingratiate himself—and how that can transform the material he’s given.
And Jordan does help transform his material. None of his movies with Coogler are exactly unpredictable in terms of pure plot. This is even true of the groundbreaking Black Panther. On paper, Jordan’s Erik follows an arc familiar to the MCU: He shares a semi-secret history with the film’s costumed protagonist, spends his early scenes isolated from the other main characters as he gathers his resources and prepares to surprise the hero, and is pitted against that hero in a battle in which he functions as a mirror image, even donning his own panther-like supersuit.
Yet by handing this Marvel boilerplate over to Jordan, Coogler turns a well-worn structure into an affecting strategy. Erik’s backstory, revealed well into the film, depends on his being left behind by the futuristic but closed-off country of Wakanda, abandoned in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland following the death of his revolutionary father. He’s one of the weightiest MCU villains, but Jordan doesn’t charge straight into operatic intensity or even normal scenery-chewing. While most of the Wakanda characters speak in African-accented English that sounds regal and precise, Erik has a more colloquial American style, in which Jordan finds a wry musicality. His understated greeting of “Hey, auntie,” directed at Wakandan royalty Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has a cultural specificity lacking from the MCU’s easier laugh lines, and a human dimension sorely lacking from, say, the Red Skull. Jordan’s performance depends on these small gestures, like when Erik addresses his Wakandan associates from the throne and taps his finger to betray a nervous energy behind his authority. Most supervillain performances play, with an understandable theatricality, to the audience. Jordan’s speech patterns and little gestures are more self-possessed.
Coogler uses his gift for imagery to support Jordan’s actorly choices, like the scene in which Erik approaches the Wakanda border with a crucial dead body in tow. This brief moment has a texture often lacking in comics movies, a kind of magic-hour idyll that nonetheless depicts an angry revolutionary carting around a corpse. Coogler also employs one of his favorite cinematic devices, the following shot, in which the camera pursues its subject. Killmonger isn’t the only one who gets this treatment; Boseman’s T’Challa has one of his own as he approaches his crowning ceremony. But the most striking version in the movie stays on Killmonger’s back, not Black Panther’s. As Erik assumes the Wakandan throne, the camera begins upside down and makes a full, deliberate 180-degree turn, both a stylish image and a crystallization of the moment when Killmonger transitions from angry outsider to the man in charge.
Jordan’s willingness to be still, and explode with emotion when needed, seem to embolden Coogler’s nervier instincts. This was the case before Black Panther, when Coogler made another franchise movie that gave him even more stylistic flexibility. Creed, in which Jordan plays the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s opponent-turned-buddy Apollo Creed, isn’t building an expansion on an expensive, elaborate, ongoing piece of Marvel architecture, but working off of a series bible written mostly (and haphazardly) by Rocky star and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone. This allows Coogler and Jordan to reshape the material and make the best Rocky movie since the first one.
Creed doesn’t give Jordan a lot of dialogue upfront. Adonis Creed’s first lines in the movie are spoken by an actor playing him as a kid, and he’s first seen as an adult getting himself psyched up for a fight before the camera follows him up some stairs, mostly in shadow, and into the boxing ring. Other early scenes, all providing the character with degrees of standoffishness, rely on his seething intensity—and accompanying sense of isolation. Even his first conversation with his love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), gets abruptly curtailed as she slams a door in his face.
It’s a neat, subtle trick Coogler plays to maintain Creed’s underdog status despite what appears to be a more privileged background than Balboa. The fact that Jordan’s ultra-persistent Creed doesn’t replicate the aw-shucks humility of Rocky counts as a bold gambit in a big-studio environment that demands selfless gestures, cardboard villains, children in peril… anything to score some more precious likability. Creed works so well because Jordan spends so little time asking for approval, which gives his late-movie mid-fight admission to Balboa, that he’s fighting to prove that he’s not a “mistake,” the force of a major body blow.
Despite Creed’s boxing legacy, the movie succeeds in keeping its characters at ground level, which Coogler emphasizes with more following shots. Some of them have a traditional boxer-into-the-ring iconic grandeur, while others, like Creed’s entrance into Bianca’s apartment, are more intimate, bringing the audience along with the character rather than staring in awe at his majesty. There’s a similar sense of intimacy in the sequence when Coogler follows Jordan and Stallone together from a Philadelphia street, up some stairs, and around the floor of a boxing gym, simply because after a lot of scenes that isolate Jordan, the two stars share the frame for nearly the entire length of the unbroken shot.
Although both Creed and Panther have a broader visual vocabulary, it’s their following shots that forge the strongest visual connections between the earliest, least flashy Coogler/Jordan collaboration. Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the 24 hours leading up to the real-life police shooting of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed Bay Area resident, packs a clear emotional punch, and its relevance sadly hasn’t faded at all since its 2013 release. In the context of Coogler’s career, though, it feels like an extremely promising tryout. Plenty of filmmakers—hopefully most—improve after their first film, but it’s rare to find a director who can follow a Sundance indie with two straight franchise movies and have the franchise movies feel more personal.
In Fruitvale, Coogler and Jordan haven’t come to experiment or dazzle. Stylewise, the movie stays within contemporary American indie aesthetics, with lots of handheld camera and plainspoken realism (sort of Gus Van Sant lite). Jordan talks more, with a slightly Casey Affleck-ish rasp, and spells out more of his character’s feelings. Most of the movie’s stylistic flourishes are accordingly less sustained, part of its slice-of-life approach: Coogler’s camera follows Oscar into his bedroom as he hastily cleans up and grabs some marijuana that he intends to sell; down the greeting card aisle of a store; and with handheld jitteriness as he approaches the canine victim of a hit-and-run.
But there are also distinctive if still unshowy stretches: one following shot of Oscar as he walks through his daughter’s school, leading seamlessly into a brief scene with his daughter on the school’s backyard playground, and another that travels with him and his friends up the escalator out of the BART system and onto the streets of San Francisco. The camera isn’t constantly at Jordan’s back but it scarcely lets him out of its sight—a queasily effective strategy given Oscar’s tragic end.
That coiled quality of waiting for a vicious inevitability lies more with the story of Fruitvale than Jordan’s performance; the real-life events take over and can’t provide the emotional release of an extremely fictional crowd-pleaser like Black Panther or Creed. But Jordan does get to show tremendous range of the everyday-life variety: warmth with his daughter, frustration with his limited job options, guilt over lying to his mom about using a cellphone earpiece while he drives, sly charm in a scene where he talks a shop owner into letting a couple of women in to use the bathroom. That this character’s reality extends to a terrifying and violent police stop makes the movie chilling, and Jordan keeps it from feeling too much like a pure exercise.
Jordan is in almost every single scene of Fruitvale, most of the scenes in Creed, and comparatively fewer in Black Panther. This progression would make it seem like Coogler is weaning himself off of his muse, if not for the fact that Jordan’s potency only increases as their collaboration goes on. He commands the screen in Fruitvale, emerges as a real movie star in Creed, and by Black Panther does so much with his half hour or so of screen time that his presence looms over the whole movie despite barely appearing in it for the first hour.
Even in the single most affecting scene of Black Panther, Coogler holds back his star, trusting him to deliver in small doses. During a dream sequence, Erik speaks to his departed father (Sterling K. Brown), and in a single cut, Coogler brings Erik back to the pre-teen age he was when his dad was killed. Their interaction continues without missing a beat, and when he cuts back to the adult Erik, still in the dream, a tear streaming down Jordan’s cheek, the scared, angry kid of seconds earlier is still there in Jordan’s eyes. Inserting a kid actor into the scene could come off like a filmmaking shortcut, a way to wring emotion out of the scene faster. But it works beautifully because Coogler trusts Jordan to create continuity with those shots of his character’s younger self. The scene has a recognizably real-world sense of tragedy with few, if any, equals in the MCU.
This carries over into the film’s action climax. As they fight for Wakanda’s fate, Erik and T’Challa are forcefully separated by a vibranium-powered subway that temporarily de-powers their supersuits (Star Wars diehards may recall a similar physical setup in a Phantom Menace duel). Coogler uses the strategic halt in action as an opportunity for Erik to expose his pain, his sense that the world has taken everything from him, an outburst not unlike Creed’s moment of ringside catharsis. Excitingly staged fisticuffs pause for sustained heartbreak. Black Panther has some Marvel limitations, but Coogler seems excited to readjust pop touchstones while pushing Jordan to the fore.
Jordan and Coogler are both extremely talented, and will doubtlessly do great work apart. (A fourth collaboration between the two, the test-cheating drama Wrong Answer, has already been announced). Their work together so far, though, feels emboldened like the best star/filmmaker collaborations. In this case, Jordan and Coogler have been able to address aspects of being black in America in all of their movies in pretty disparate genres. Other filmmakers have treated Jordan like a more traditional star. In his movies without Coogler, including two other superhero pictures from now-disgraced director Josh Trank (the found-footage Chronicle and the most recent attempt at rebooting Fantastic Four), he’s still charismatic. But his material leans heavily on that charisma, rather than pushing it beyond movie-star likability. Chronicle seems to at least understand his magnetism, but Fantastic Four strands him and the rest of the cast, while his single foray into comedy, That Awkward Moment, burdens him with the movie’s most serious subplot (though he’s not any worse off than the cast members who have to labor under the impression that their antics are amusing).
As Jordan becomes more famous, presumably other filmmakers will figure out how to use him more effectively and consistently. But right now it’s hard to imagine another director matching the thrill of Coogler and Jordan getting on each other’s wavelength, modulating big stylistic leaps with subtler performance notes (and, when necessary, vice versa), digging beyond the surface pleasures of their talents. Their collective gravity brings even the biggest movies down to earth.