In 2016 when Chadwick Boseman showed up as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War, as suave as humanly possible and with an undeniable presence for a character in an introductory/cameo role, he turned in the type of performance that begged for a deeper dive. And when he was so gracious to put on a Vibranium (we’ll get there) panther suit and start flipping around, kicking ass, I wondered how it took so long to bring the Black Panther to the movie screen. It was the perfect amount of screen time, creating as much wonder as hype for a new character, something Marvel has nearly perfected inside its all encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Fast forward to 2018, where we’re all in a post Wakanda world, gifted with one of the best Marvel films to date.
Flipping my normal formula around, I want to get to the heavier aspects of this review early. For starters, this movie is almost inextricably linked to its own hype. The buzz around Black Panther has been huge, consistent and yet still found a way to crescendo to its premiere. Black Panther has become as much a cultural phenomenon as a blockbuster, not dissimilar to Wonder Woman from last year in that it captures, displays and celebrates the excellence of an largely underrepresented group through the lens of modern day mythical storytelling.
I think a disconnect can happen when depth of story is added to a movie about super heroes. It became almost its own sub genre after the success of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, where a movie needed to be stark and realistic to make a real critical impression. This is not what Black Panther sets out to do, taking any possibilities for bleakness and replacing it with intimate, reflective moments. They are still couched between amazing action packed sequences, a staple in all super hero movies, but neither aspects are cheapened or diminished by the other.
I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for Black people (that sentence could just stop there, but humor me) all across the world to see a movie like Black Panther, with its cast and budget and support, all helmed by a young Black director in Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). There have been movies with Black super heroes before, but nothing to this scale, not even close. Divorcing this movie from its cultural relevance does an injustice to the progress a movie like this represents and ignores how sad it is that it’s taken this long for a movie like this to happen. The theme of progress that surrounds the production of Black Panther is on full display throughout the plot of the movie.
What’s interesting about the country of Wakanda, home of T’Challa the Black Panther, is that it’s a isolationist kingdom, hidden from the world by technologically advanced walls. It’s people are prosperous thanks in large part to the country being literally founded on top of a deposit of Vibranium (we got there) a celestial metal that powers every aspect of Wakanda. This kingdom blends tribal aspect of the African continent with futuristic splendor, which has allowed Wakanda to thrive in peace and prosperity while hidden in plain sight from the rest of the world.
This is where the plot of Blank Panther takes it shape, and is driven along by almost the entirety of its cast. What’s wonderful about this movie, which shirks a lot of the tired cliches of the genre constantly, is that its cast is fully realized and integral. Unlike a lot of the early Marvel fare, that were themselves introductory forays, Black Panther relies heavily on its supporting cast to flesh out narrative and purpose, so much so that it’s fair to say that the Black Panther might not be the best part of Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is charismatic and vulnerable. He plays the role of the hero so well, with all the drive and honor you would expect of a warrior king and he’s at his best when the film dips into the more mystical aspects of the Black Panther mythos. He takes into consideration the motivations and ideas of everyone around him, running his kingdom much more like a democracy, which is prescient due in large part to the cavalcade of amazing women he is surrounded by.
Between Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and a break out appearance by Letitia Wright, Black Panther does as much for Black excellence as it does for Female excellence. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up a truly royal performance by Angela Bassett who along side Forest Whitaker and John Kani bring a real gravity to the cast. Danai Gurira in particular shines as Okoye, the leader of the all female Dora Milaje, who serve as T’Challa’s bodyguards. She’s a wonderfully refreshing take on the “sage warrior”, as much an adviser to T’Challa as a protector. And Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and scientific leader of Wakanda is equal parts Tony Stark and Q from James Bond, while being a point of constant levity in this film and resoundingly charming.
Where Black Panther may shine the brightest is in its solution the a constant issue in almost every super hero movie; its villain. Michael B. Jordan as the badass and admittedly swoon worthy Killmonger, steals the show by having real purpose and drive behind his opposition to our hero. His goals and certainly his methods feel… less than peaceful, but his motivation feels earned and certainly understandable. The connection that he has to Wakanda and T’Challa is certainly Shakespearean through a modern American lens, and frames the entirety of the turmoil that burns within the heart of both Wakanda and T’Challa. One of the most difficult enemies to defeat is one that you empathize with, a reflection of your own inner conflict.
The fact that all of these amazing actors and this familiar story take place in a completely new and fantastical world, created in its entirety for this film is spectacular. The world of Wakanda is fully fleshed out and brings a sense of its history alongside its majesty by showing us some of the most intimate rituals a ceremonies of its people. That Wakanda, its people and Black Panther‘s depiction of all of it are so well executed brings me to a point I’ve thought a lot about since the credits rolled: this might’ve been better as a TV show.
If the biggest criticism I have of a thing is that I just didn’t get enough of it, that’s not bad, but when it comes to the history of Wakanda, its tribal heritage, technological superiority and how all of these aspects ultimately created the biggest threat to the country in Killmonger, I would’ve enjoyed more time within this specific storyline. The way the MCU movies work is that, while we may get character growth from film to film, most stories are self contained. But the intrigue of this film is so rich that it deserved more time to be explored. Following all the intrigue and familial strife within T’Challa’s own family alone, even spending time in flashback to learn more about how his father ruled the country would be so interesting but my qualms don’t keep this from being a truly wonderful experience.
I will say that some of the action sequences, with regards to the fact that the people of Wakanda are more martial in their arts, often lacked fluidity. Seeing T’Challa’s fighting style on full display in Captain America: Civil War made me really excited to revisit it, but that kinetic feel isn’t always present in Black Panther. And, just being a stickler, the movie theater I was in didn’t provide the audio experience I was hoping for. And I mean MY specific theater; I walked by another auditorium playing the 3D version and I could literally feel the bass heavy soundtrack, so much so that I let out an audible “Dangit.”
Black Panther on its own is an incredibly enjoyable film, familiar and brand new all at once. It dodges a lot of the pitfalls that comic book movies tend to fall into, (sole focus on title characters, lackluster villains, plot as a means to an action packed end) and is such a refreshing and mesmerizing experience that I’d recommend it to anyone without any kind of qualifiers. But adding into the mix the fact that this is much more than just the latest blockbuster movie going experience cannot be discounted. I’m definitely stoked to go see at again as soon as possible and not just because the sound issues! But it doesn’t hurt that Kendrick Lamar produced and curated the soundtrack. Wakanda Forever, folks.