No spoilers! Feel free to read in full if you haven’t seen the movie yet.
One of the worst things you can do is place unwarranted expectations on a person, place, thing, or event. Leading up to the release of Marvel’s Black Panther, the expectations for the movie reached Star Wars-esq levels. Just to be clear, I don’t mean Revenge of the Sith, I’m talking Return of the Jedi levels of anticipation. Considering the lack of positive African American representation on the big and small screen it’s not hard to understand why African Americans have made it their mission to support this movie in full force. Black Panther managed to galvanize an entire people to spend their hard earn money months in advance for something that could very well have failed miserably. As a black man, I wanted to love this movie based on principle alone. As an objective writer on the interwebs, I know I have to put all of my cultural bias aside and view this movie not as a cultural movement but as just another piece of cinema. That’s said, Black Panther isn’t perfect… but it is the best movie Marvel Studios has ever released.
Black Panther revolves around the new king of Wakanda, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, and his struggle to fit in his new role. Along the way, we are introduced to the royal family, which consist of Angela Bassett as Remonda, T’Challa’s mother and the current Queen Mother of Wakanda, and T’Challa’s sister, Princess Shuri played by the delightful Letitia Wright. The core of Black Panther is rounded out by Walking Dead’s resident bad ass Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje (the royal guard) and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, who is an old flame of T’Challa.
Make no mistake about it: Black Panther is a big budget superhero movie. What makes it different is it manages to be simplistic in its approach while dealing with some extremely heavy subject matter. The superhero stuff almost immediately takes a backseat to the surprisingly interesting dilemma of what is required of those with power and what the consequences are when those in power make choices. T’Challa idolized his father but soon finds out that a spur of the moment choice by T’Chaka sets off a chain of events that almost destroys the royal family and the throne itself. The reckoning for T’Chaka’s choices comes in the form of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who gives Loki a run for his money in the best Marvel movie villain category.
Loki worked as a villain mostly because of the electric performance of Tom Hiddleston. Killmonger works not just because of Jordan’s transcendent performance but because he may actually be right. The best villains are ones that you can sympathize with on some level and trust me it will be hard not to see where Killmonger is coming from once his motivations are revealed. Without spoiling anything the best way to describe the dichotomy between Killmonger and T’Challa is Killmonger is Malcolm (X) and T’Challa is Martin (Luther King Jr). Killmonger wants to rage against the oppression of our people using force, while T’Challa is more interested in peace than war, for any purpose. Further compounding T’Challa’s inner conflict on the best way to rule is the return on Nyong’o who also thinks Wakanda can do more, much like Killmonger, just you know… with less killing.
One of the reasons this movie works so well is its amazing cast. As previously mentioned Jordan has inserted himself in the annals of great movie villains but he wasn’t the only scene-stealer in Black Panther. Letitia Wright’s Shuri stole every scene she was in. Wright’s youthful exuberance and surprisingly effective comedic timing helped ground the film and pull it away from the edge as it teetered on the verge becoming a bit trite at times. Boseman’s T’Challa can come off a bit too rigid and borderline bland at here an there (mostly in Captain America: Civil War- Boseman’s first turn as T’Challa) but his interaction with Wright helped add much-needed depth to the T’Challa character. He is more than just a warrior or king. He is a loving brother and son as well.
One of the most impressive things about this film is the time spent focusing on strong African women. As underserved as African/African American men are in film, African/African American women are even more so. You see, T’Challa’s strength has a great deal to do with his relationships with the women who surround him. His sense of nobility comes from his mother, his sense of duty comes from his friendship with Okoye, or General Badass as I like to call her, his sense of levity comes from his relationship with his sister and his ability to care/love is derived from his relationship with Nakia. It becomes evident very early on in the movie that T’Challa would not be the man he is today without the women in his life. That in itself is a massive achievement and a huge step in the right direction when it comes to how we (blacks) are represented in Hollywood.
The plot of Black Panther is well executed but the one criticism I have is that the movie did start off a bit slow. This was only an issue for the first ten or so minutes but this led to the pacing of the film to feel a slightly off as the movie progressed. Also, at times the CGI was a bit spotty. During the opening action sequence, you could see the CGI version of Black Panther hopping around the jungle. It wasn’t jarringly bad, but noticeable all the same.
“Tell me something… what do you know about Wakanda?”- Ulysses Klaue
If it was a year or so ago the average person wouldn’t have an answer to that question. Is it a country on the travel ban list? Is it one of the shitholes our President mentioned weeks ago? Though I am sure if you asked him, Trump and/or most of his followers would say so (some of these people think Agrabah- the fictional place Disney’s Aladdin lives- is a real place. Seriously, that’s a thing that happened). No, Wakanda is so, so much more. Wakanda isn’t just the home of the Black Panther, it’s the hub for medical and technological marvels the world has never seen before. That fact is one of the driving factors of the movie’s plot. The big idea, if you will. If you are on the bleeding edge and have the resources is it your obligation to help those who don’t? For thousands of years, Wakanda has hidden from the world watching it devour itself while Wakanda prospered. This is something that the previous king T’Chaka championed while the new king T’Challa seems to be haunted by it. Pretty heavy concepts for a comic book movie, eh?
The Final Word->
So many films have collapsed under the weight of fan expectation. Black Panther not only held up under the pressure, it crushes it. Director Ryan Coogler has done what the majority of critics have claimed impossible. Coogler took a Marvel Comics property and turned it into a cinematic masterpiece.
Grade: 9/10 – Outstanding