Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler makes his way into the MCU with Black Panther’s standalone debut, and he’s crafted what I feel is one of the more innovative and mature films to come out of the studio recently. As much as I loved Thor Ragnarok and thought it was hilarious, I can understand how some people felt the comedy was too overbearing during its heavier moments.
Panther, in contrast, allows is drama to gel and has no fear in tackling issues pertaining to global influence, energy and cultural conflicts. And the best part is how it weaves its messages into a fun, epic film that never comes off overbearing. Its racial politics are front and center, but the story always feels thrilling and never preachy.
Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is on point in helping to render the kingdom of Wakanda that our main hero T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) presides over. This movie picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which saw the assassination of his father T’Chaka (John Kani).
As the prince makes his way home and Wakanda’s queen mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) informs him it’s time to receive the crown, we get a sweeping shot of his technologically advanced homeland that wouldn’t look too out of place in a Star Wars movie. It’s certainly a landmark in how Afrofuturism has been presented in terms of the mainstream.
Wakanda is bolstered by its rich resources of vibranium, a powerful substance that allows its citizens to develop innovative concepts, such as telecommunicators that rise from the user’s hands like a magical black sand. T’Challa’s younger sister and sassy scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright) uses the material to not only enhance his big brother’s suit (which results in some funny banter between the two), but also create hologrammatic simulations of cars and airships- which are especially useful when the Wakandans discover that one of their artifacts has been stolen from a museum.
With the help of his spy girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a general named Okoye (Danai Gurira) who commands the Dora Milaje special forces, the Black Panther prowls his way through South Korea after recurring MCU villain Klaw (Andy Serkis) to recover the vibranium and keep the secret from being leaked. But Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a special ops soldier with mysterious tribal markings adorning his chest, has other plans in mind.
The argument he makes as to why he should be the real Wakandan king won’t make you turn on our heroes completely, but it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have a point. It’s said that the best bad guys believe they’re correct, and this helps make Killmonger easily one of the most compelling antagonists the MCU’s had in quite some time. A flashback to his childhood in Oakland especially hits hard.
But any superhero film worth its salt also needs a compelling lead character, and Chadwick Boseman delivers the goods as the new Wakandan king. The fact that he’s a black hero protagonist is groundbreaking enough for mainstream hero fare, but Boseman adds considerable compassion and understanding to his role. While his cool powers and gadgets define him as an escapist power fantasy for all kinds of people (young black boys especially), it’s his relatability and kindness that connect him to the audience.
One good example is seen during a coronation ceremony at a gigantic lagoon, where his spiritual advisor Zuri (Forest Whitaker) has T’Challa undergo a ritual where his powers are actually removed, and would-be rulers challenge his right to the throne. The idea is for the competitors to fight to the death, but T’Challa chooses to spare the life of the mountain ruler M’Baku (Winston Duke) after he bests him. This proves to be a wise decision on his part as the film progresses.
M’Baku, who gets some funny dialogue later, is one of many supporting characters that stand out in Black Panther. The women are badass and capable, but never to where the title hero comes off inept, they always feel like equals. T’Challa’s advisor W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) can’t seem to decide which side he’s on, and Martin Freeman serves as fun comic relief playing the bumbling CIA agent Everett Ross. Gurira lends plenty of humanity and warmth to her role as Okoye while always remaining intimidating.
Wright is a particular delight as Shuri, displaying plenty of humor and heart and kicking plenty of butt in her own right during the climax. She might be the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond in some ways, but you’ll also learn quickly why it’s a bad idea to sport open-toed sandals in her lab.
What complaints I do have are relatively minor. The editing of the action feels a bit choppy at points, and it would have been nice to see T’Challa in action more often inside his suit (though the combat he does engage in is certainly memorable). Some of the pacing slows a bit in the middle, but to be fair some of the talk-heavy scenes are important to the character development. In particular, Boseman’s performances when he consults with his father in a beautifully rendered spiritual plane are quite powerful.
I have a feeling that Black Panther will probably connect the most with older audiences and MCU fans, just because of how uncompromising its narrative is. It’s a comic book film that isn’t afraid to challenge the viewer in terms of its ideas and the gravity of its tone. And thinking about it, that’s exactly what a major Panther film needed to be for it to succeed. Judging by the box office, that strategy seems to have paid off.
This movie is easily a case of “high risk, high reward” on Marvel’s part, and an easy recommendation from me. BP is the royal intrigue story I wanted from the Inhumans series but didn’t get, and much more. (The fact that Wakanda doesn’t employ a caste system was also a plus.) If what we got here was just a preview for Avengers: Infinity War, then we’re in for a crazy exciting 2018 when it comes to superhero flicks.
Have you see Black Panther yet, and what did you think? Hit us up on @Official_FAN and let us know!