Black Panther (2018)
Long live the king.
Exactly two years after #OscarsSoWhite became an unofficial awards season tagline, it’s clear that many in Hollywood have (finally) begun to listen. None, however, have been quite as bold in embracing change as Marvel Studios, whose 18th motion picture, Black Panther, features the first ever champion (within this superhero landscape) whose skin color is not white — and no, I’m not talking about Banner’s bulking Incredible Hulk. Sure, we’ve had the reasonably solid Blade trilogy, along with smaller budgeted movies such as 1997’s Spawn and a bunch of other comedy flicks including Blankman (1994), and Robert Townsend’s The Meteor Man (1993) — which was the first superhero film to feature a predominantly black cast — but none have had the backing nor publicity behind Marvel’s newest outing.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther has been a long time coming, with actors such as Wesley Snipes, Djimon Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor and even John Boyega considered for the titular role, filmmaker Coogler approached to direct after receiving critical acclaim for his work on Sly Stallone’s Rocky comeback, Creed (2015).
Black Panther is quite different when compared to what’s come before it, mainly in its representation of African men and women. First up, our hero, T’Challa (a superb Chadwick Boseman), is a powerful leader and the king of a fictional African nation called Wakanda, a hidden technologically advanced society built around a meteor crash site made up of sound-absorbing metal called Vibranium (used for Captain America’s shield and Black Panther’s impenetrable suit), its radiation permeating much of the country’s plant-life and vegetation. In order to protect this powerful substance, Africa has posed itself as a primitive nation, with Wakanda hiding its advancements from the rest of the world via a camouflaging force field. Our secondary heroes are a group of badass bald-headed women dubbed the Dora Milaje, who serve as the king’s personal bodyguards. And then we have Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s lil’ sister and the chief scientist in the territory, who’s apparently smarter than Tony Stark — so you see, not only are these characters black, but women are also portrayed as being physically and intellectually equal to their male counterparts.
Following the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani), who was killed during an attack on the IFID Headquarters in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Black Panther opens when T’Challa returns home to Wakanda to take his rightful place as ruler, the coronation ceremony held in a rock pool atop a stunning waterfall, where a multitude of citizens (royals and commoners) dressed in an array of colorful tribal costumes, spectate from above. After fending off a protesting warrior, M’Baku (Winston Duke) — leader of The Jabari (Wakanda’s ostracized mountain tribe) — via a show stopping hand-to-hand dogfight, T’Challa is crowned king or the Black Panther, the initiation process requiring him to devour a special heart-shaped herb that grants him his super-human abilities (which, unfortunately, are never fully defined). Although Wakanda is a peaceful nation, there’s a bit of a divide when it comes to its ideology, some wanting to keep their precious resource safely tucked away, while others believe that they should share it with the rest of the world, or at least, their poorer neighbors.
Halfway across the globe, a modish-looking Wakandan exile, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan sporting a funky haircut), strolls into a British museum where he makes a snarky comment about the spoils of colonialism before stealing an ancient Wakandan relic, which happens to be made of Vibranium. Working with thuggish South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis doing his best Sharlto Copley impression), who knows the country’s secrets, the pair plans on selling the Vibranium on the black market (to the highest bidder, of course), which gets them noticed by T’Challa’s camp. And so, the Panther heads to a classy James Bond-esque casino in Busan, South Korea, with his two closest soldiers, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) — whom he clearly holds a torch for — and head of the royal guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), in order to recover the missing metal.
Following an elaborate shootout, we have the film’s best action sequence, which sees moviemakers stage an impressively kinetic car chase across the streets of Busan, with T’Challa’s sister remote controlling his car from her Wakandan base, and the one-handed Klaue firing at our heroes with his awesome Vibranium arm-cannon. And while Black Panther doesn’t feature Marvel’s best VFX to date — they’re a bit too cartoony and distracting, chiefly the digital doubles — the film is constantly gripping, engaging and impressive to look at. The rich, vibrant world of Wakanda, for one, feels like a techno-savvy mish-mash of Hellboy II’s Troll Market and Disney’s The Lion King, Wakanda complete with its very own rituals and traditions. Tipping its hat to the spy genre, Wakanda also houses a Q-like genius in the form of the brainy Shuri, who creates T’Challa’s many gadgets and doohickeys, along with his armored cat-looking bodysuit, which charges by absorbing kinetic energy, then redistributes it back by means of a shockwave-type attack.
Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, American Crime Story (2016), the narrative is strengthened by a satisfying adversary, the most well-rounded in the MUC thus far. Emerging late in the game, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is the best kinda villain, one that viewers can both loath and sympathize with, this baddie driven by a deep-seated need to right past wrongs. The epitome of black anger, Killmonger is convinced that Vibranium should be used to arm the racially oppressed, so that the minorities can rise up and reclaim the planet. With that said, Jordon — who starred in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed — really stands out as a contrasting reflection of our protagonist, the talented 30-year-old imbuing the character with heartache, anguish and rage, his story arc and motivations shining a light on many timely, real-world issues.
Chadwick Boseman, once again, excels as the dignified Prince T’Challa, aka the Black Panther — who made his comic book debut back in 1966 in Fantastic Four #52 — Boseman finding that perfect mix of strength, dexterity and smarts, sorta playing the guy like a conflicted emperor who just wants to do right by his people.
Supporting Boseman is a stellar cast, in particular the ladies, each who gets a couple of moments to shine. Danai Gurira, from AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010), kicks some serious butt as the spear-wielding Okoye, while Lupita Nyong’o, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), is great as T’Challa’s former flame Nakia, an independent-minded gal who’s got her own ideas about how Wakanda could (and probably should) help the rest of the world. Newcomer Letitia Wright steals all of her scenes as wildcat Shuri, T’Challa’s spunky kid sister, who’s not afraid of criticizing her big bro (mocking him in the process), while Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out (2017), looks to be a bit over his head as W’Kabi, captain of Wakanda’s boarder security, Kaluuya’s character having no qualms in voicing his negative stance towards the ‘white man.’ Speaking of the ‘white man,’ Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), reprises his role as CIA Agent Everett K. Ross from Civil War, and winds up piloting a Wakandan hover-ship in the climactic clash. Lastly, Forest Whitaker, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), adds gravitas to proceedings as a spiritual guru named Zuri, whereas Angela Bassett, Strange Days (1995), feels wasted as T’Challa’s mother and Queen Mother of Wakanda, Ramonda.
Also worthy of note is the film’s pulsating score by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, Creed (2015), which fuses traditional orchestral music with African percussion, and the original songs by Kendrick Lamar, The Weekend and SZA, these tracks poised to become top 40 hits!
Landing on all fours, Black Panther offers a fresh perspective on a well-worn formula. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got those conventional Marvel knickknacks, you know, the post-credit scenes — one which sets up Avengers: Infinity War (2018) — and the standard Stan Lee cameo, but Coogler and his filmmaking team have crafted something singular and unique, a big-budget comic-book movie with an Afro-centric twist, Wakanda (and its inhabitants) standing out as a place I’d love to re-visit. Wakanda forever, baby!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie