Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker
We were first introduced to Black Panther, played exceptionally well by Chadwick Boseman, in Captain America: Civil War. Marvel has now given the character his own standalone film to build on his backstory and legacy. As we saw in the previous movie, T’Challa/Black Panther’s father was killed at the United Nations explosion. T’Challa is now the rightful heir to the throne taking his place as the new king of the African nation, Wakanda. He’s in mourning over his father’s death and doesn’t feel ready to take on the responsibilities of being king. Wakanda is not the third-world country people make it out to be. Hidden from the naked eye is a technologically advanced community run on a mysterious element known as vibranium. When ingested, as we see with T’Challa, he gains strength, speed, and lightning-fast instincts. T’Challa’s newly appointed title doesn’t sit well with Erik Killmonger (Jordan) who believes he should be the new king. Back in London, he poses as a museum visitor when his partner-in-crime, Klaue (Serkis) arrives and stages a heist stealing artifacts with hidden vibranium in them. As we learn with the standard third act twist, Killmonger is out for vengeance hoping to use the vibranium against T’Challa and the people of Wakanda.
With every new Marvel movie, I go in with glee but wonder if fatigue will set in with the fact we get two or three movies per year. Rest assured when I tell you that ten years and 18 movies later, Black Panther is one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s empowering to see a massive blockbuster superhero film written, directed, and starring people of color. Marvel likes hiring newer directors, and Ryan Coogler fits the bill making this his third film following Fruitvale Station and Creed. All three star Michael B. Jordan making this a fantastic director and actor partnership. One that will one day join the ranks of Scorsese/De Niro and Spielberg/Hanks. More so than other Marvel films that may be a bit lighter like Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy, Ryan Coogler uses modern day struggles and issues as the backbone for his story. It may be set in the present day, but Coogler examines a world where the traditional can be intertwined with modern and contemporary. The film honors and displays the rich centuries old African culture while fusing it with a slick, ultra-cool futuristic society. This juxtaposition is fully realized in the stunning costume design by Ruth E. Carter who presents very traditional clothing for the citizens of Wakanda while dressing Black Panther, Killmonger, and the other warriors in harder, edgier materials. We also see this played out in the music by Kendrick Lamar and Ludwig Göransson and the film’s production design.
Coogler has aligned a cast full of force and drive. As T’Challa/Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman commands every scene he is in whether it’s the smaller intimate moments dealing with his father’s death or the big action sequences. He’s the strong and silent superhero more concerned with doing the right thing for Wakanda rather than getting overly cocky with his super powers. To counter him is Coogler’s muse Michael B. Jordan as head villain Eric Killmonger. His motivations are grounded in a realistic truth as opposed to the standard, diabolical bad guy with a maniacal laugh. Jordan gets to flex his muscles, literally and figuratively, as he’s often given the underdog role as we saw in Fruitvale Station, Creed, or even NBC’s Friday Night Lights. His right-hand man, Klaue, is brought to life by Andy Serkis who’s best known for his motion capture work in the Planet of the Apes or Lord of the Rings trilogies. Klaue is another slimy character, and one of the only few live action performances we’ve seen from him.
If Wonder Woman laid the groundwork for strong female heroes, then Black Panther continues that tradition by giving actresses Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) and Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars) the chance to be just as dynamic and powerful. They battle alongside Black Panther every step of the way. It’s refreshing to see that its T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who gets to be his tech guru, much like a Q or Luscious Fox as she preps his Black Panther suit, weapons, and slick car. Rounding out the cast is Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother and Queen of Wakanda, Get Out Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, and This is Us Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. Can you get any cooler and badass than this cast?
Black Panther works incredibly well despite it being an introductory movie. It does suffer from the same flaws we often see in these Marvel movies. Coogler is forced to cram in as much story as possible leaving some pacing concerns. I couldn’t tell if the movie had slowed down or if so much was happening that more time should have passed by. It all feels necessary, so I’m less concerned about the editing or lack of purpose. I’ve never read the comics from which it’s based but the use of a metal/serum/element, in this case vibranium, seems like an outdated plot device. I don’t think it’s spoiling the film too much to state that there are some twists and turns along the way as T’Challa learns more about his father’s past and how he needs to build his own destiny. I couldn’t help but wonder if Coogler is drawing homage to another Disney property, The Lion King. Outside of those little squabbles, the film is highly impressive from start to finish. The special effects and action sequences feel quite immersive to the audience thanks to Rachel Morrison’s cinematography. She’s another Oscar nominee this year for her work on Mudbound.
As the new king, T’Challa has to wrestle with a few issues that seem topical in today’s society. Black Panther feels more aligned with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy than some of the other Marvel films in this regard. He struggles with how to protect and serve his people when he’s supposed to lead with peace. Coogler asks the audience if Wakanda and/or the United States have a responsibility to use their resources and technology to help other less fortunate countries. The ending monologue given by Chadwick Boseman drives home the film’s themes of looking at what connects us as humans versus what is constantly dividing us. If you can’t get enough of Black Panther, know that we’ll see these characters again very seen when Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters in May. Until then, I will have to trek to the theater and see it a few more times.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Black Panther is the superhero we need right now.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS