Review: Black Panther
Stemming back to 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios output has varied. It’s expected when trying to tell an overarching storyline tying together dozens of characters and encompassing nearly 20 films. Lately, the people in charge have been giving more and more freedom, it would seem, to unique voices in filmmaking. James Gunn and Taika Waititi each made films that were vibrantly their own, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok, respectively. Now they’ve handed the keys to their multi-billion-dollar franchise to Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). And, as it turns out, their genius streak continues; not only is Coogler’s Black Panther entertaining as a superhero movie, it’s also in tune with the director’s previous work, tackling race from Oakland, California to the fictional nation of Wakanda.
The film is set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War. After the death of his father, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is crowned the king of the nation of Wakanda, an African society hiding itself from the rest of the world. T'Challa is wary of exposing Wakanda and its technology, all built upon the resource of the world’s strongest and most valuable element, vibranium. The king’s alter ego, Black Panther, has been protecting Wakanda for centuries and T'Challa continues to do so by trying to take down Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a ruthless black-arms dealer who has spent decades stealing from Wakandans.
Black Panther briskly lays out Wakanda’s history and puts the audience right into the action. T'Challa, with the help of vibranium and his super-smart sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), is half James Bond and Iron Man, as he sets out to capture Klaue. Boseman still remains a perfect fit as T'Challa—equally smart, capable, and funny in the role, which is exemplified in the film’s first big, spy genre-influenced, action sequence. Boseman looks suave as hell in a tailored suit as he infiltrates an underground casino, and he’s lethal as soon as he puts on the superhero tights. The king’s head guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend/special forces operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) are also in on the melee, and they’re each so bad ass and wonderful as they hold their own, all while Coogler’s camera deftly dances around the action. Fans of Creed’s single-take work will enjoy one particular sequence; Coogler re-teams with his Fruitvale Station cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Dope, Mudbound) to deliver some striking visuals that lift the film above its ‘concrete-colored’ Marvel Studios predecessors.
Writers Coogler and Joe Robert Cole manage to balance between the superhero entertainment everyone is accustomed to and the themes right at the center of Black Panther. Why should Wakanda stay isolated? Why shouldn’t the nation take care of their fellow man around the world? These are the questions Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) asks as he sets out on his own quest for revenge on T'Challa and Wakanda. Jordan is stellar as Erik Stevens aka Killmonger; he actually has legitimate reasons for his anger, and it’s hard not to side with him at times, but there’s no mistaking he’s a dangerous force who Black Panther and his team must stop at all costs. It’s a show-stealing performance—one that completes a thematic trilogy between Coogler and Jordan, with Fruitvale Station, Creed, and now Black Panther each representing its black heroes with the proper respect they deserve.
That same respect is given to its entire ensemble—the best cast of any non-Avengers Marvel film. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker each have moments to shine in their respective roles, and Daniel Kaluuya and Martin Freeman respectively play smaller, yet key, parts in a huge canvas. The only missteps to be found in the film lay at some of the CG work—some of it works (the third act reaches Lord of the Rings-level fantasy battle epicness), but when two CG characters duke it out in the dark, you’re taken out of the film, right when you’re emotionally invested in each participant. Luckily, the film comes back to what’s key—the internal struggle of T'Challa and his people and where they go once the credits roll. Not since Iron Man has there been a superhero movie that both understands its lead while also introducing his world at such an entertaining level.
Your blood will be pumping by the end, thanks in part to a lively score by Ludwig Göransson and original songs by Kendrick Lamar, and Coogler and company bring you back to Earth, instilling a message of hope. As silly as it may sound, Black Panther is an important film, one we all truly need right now.