Movie Review: Black Panther

Black-Panther-posterBelieve the hype.

Marvel’s Black Panther not only continues the studio’s tradition for making fun, accessible comic book movies, but also propels it into something almost wholly different. One major complaint about Marvel Studios work is their relative sameness and unwillingness to mess with a winning formula.

This movie is anything but the same as everything that came before it. It presents a character-driven story (and, yes, a social message– appropriate for both the history of this character and our current political state) and is more focused on character and world-building than its action sequences, which may leave some fans feeling a little bored in the first act. But just hang around for the last twenty minutes.

Director Ryan Coogler’s visual style is given the budget and canvass it deserves, and he directs a cast of black luminaries in a way that is balanced and thoughtful. He successfully channels — and possibly even outshines — Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers in the way other Marvel franchise movies have managed to give each character their due.

Chief among these is Chadwick Boseman, who as the title character T’Challa must take the throne of his country of Wakanda after the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. This is ultimately a story of his internal conflict — whether to reveal Wakanda’s true capabilities to the world and help it, or to continue to be isolated.

His struggle is made real in the rise of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), working with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). You may remember Klaue from Age of Ultron as the arms dealer who was able to steal vibranium from Wakanda. Killmonger, an American mercenary who seems to have a connection to Wakanda, certainly has a grudge. No spoilers, but the way his story intertwines with T’Challa’s is masterful in that it helps tie the concerns of the streets of America to the fate of Wakanda and their precious vibranium.

Even better, Killmonger has a point, and is one of those great, classic villains who doesn’t believe he’s the bad guy. In many ways, he isn’t. He represents real outrage and militarism that is wholly justified. Just as T’Challa has to grapple with him, so too do we as an audience face a real challenge to heed and internalize his critique. But perhaps what is most amazing (and a credit to Coogler’s script and directing) is the commentary never feels heavy-handed, and Jordan delivers his commentary on the US military-industrial complex and systemic, cyclical, oppressive poverty, mass incarceration, drugs with the crispness, charisma, and intensity of an early 1990s Denzel Washington.

Another frequent criticism of Marvel Studios’ films is their general lack of good on-screen villains. A dozen and a half films, and across all of those you have. . .  Loki? And that’s basically it as truly memorable villains.

Black Panther by some counts may have as many as four different antagonists, including an appearance by regular comics series villain M’Baku. And all of them have a character arc, are fully developed, and work within the narrative to enhance T’Challa’s growth as a character. Most other movies suffering from too many villains (hello multiple Batman movies!) will collapse under their bloated weight. Coogler here perfectly balances everything.

Coogler also brings to bear a balanced supporting cast, all of whom get their moments to shine. Daniel Kaluyya, fresh off his success in Get Out, plays W’Kabi, one of T’Challa’s closest friends and advisors who is pushing him to be more militant and seek justice for what Klaue did to them. And Martin Freeman shows up again as Everett Ross, playing a much bigger role than we’d be led to believe.

But the real stars are the women. Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-romantic interest and a foreign operative for Wakanda. She and Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female royal guard, help keep T’Challa grounded, as well as watching his back and proving themselves just as much his equal in combat. A fight scene in a casino about halfway in show them t be T’Challa’s equals in combat, but the scene is also a master class in fight scene choreography.

Also perhaps most importantly, Angela Bassett plays the Queen mother and provides perhaps the most important line of the film. While T’Challa engages in ritual combat to claim the throne, he loses focus. She screams from the sidelines, “Show them who you are!” So much of this film is about the search for modern black identity, with multiple people asking T’Challa through the film who he is. Upon hearing the encouragement from his mother, he replies, “I am T’Challa! Son of T’Chaka!” and is able to summon the inner strength needed to vanquish his rival.

Speaking of the Wakanda royal family, T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), basically acts as Q giving James Bond his toys in an early scene, and is technically adept enough that she could easily give Tony Stark some lessons. Oh, by the way, she’s a teenager, and in one of the few missteps n the film makes an immediately dated reference to an internet meme made popular on the now-defunct social media site Vine.  Despite her meming, Shuri is the breakout star of this movie, delivering one of the other best lines of the film when she refers to Everett Ross by a particularly on-the-nose epithet. She’s also an amazing role model– not just a princess, but the mind behind so much of Wakanda’s technology.

This leads me to my next point, which is the impressive tech and gadgetry of this film. Basically Wakanda says to anything we’ve seen from Stark or SHIELD in previous movies, “Anything you can do, I can do better!” Opening scenes show just how advanced they are.

And yet, for all this futuristic technology, the design and aesthetics of the film remain so firmly rooted in Africa and traditional clothes and weapons. The costume design on this film is phenomenal. Beyond that, Wakandan warriors and Dora Milaje wielding spears, knives, and scythes belie a deeper tech core, one which you can see as the weapons sparkle in the sun– one of those spears can take down a helicopter, or SUV, no problem. It’s incredibly fascinating from a basic design perspective, and asking a very basic question: What might have happened to Africa if these nations hadn’t been carved up, colonized, plundered and exploited for resources? If defended, as Wakanda was because of its vibranium, we wonder how close we would be to this vision of afro-futurism the film so effortlessly shows. But, instead, Wakanda plays to the vanity and ignorance of the rest of the world by pretending to be poor and less developed. That says more about us than it does about them.

The costumes, the weapon design all pale in comparison to a broader visual aesthetic Coogler presents. This film is gorgeous in many places. During a dream sequence we see Wakanda with purple skies in a sort of magical twilight. We also get several scenes played at or near sunset in that “magic hour” that they either beautifully captured (or more likely, digitally re-created). It’s just gorgeous, and characters even remark how spectacular the Wakandan sunsets are in a moment that will break your heart. A car chase through the streets of Busan, Korea also provide some spectacular visuals, as well as one of the best action sequences of the film.

Speaking of, hold on until the final act of this movie. It’s really talky and thinky through much of its first two hours, but its final action sequence will have you wanting more– and really looking forward to seeing Wakanda face off against Thanos and his armies in Avengers: Infinity War (What?!?! That’s only three months away?!? We live in a golden age of entertainment).

Black Panther is going to be a little less accessible to some audiences, which is a shame. Some will shun it because of bias or racism, and that’s simply too bad for them that they won’t enjoy the best movie of 2018 so far. Some will be bored by its character and world-building and wish there was more action. That’s also a shame, as we deserve more smarts in our blockbusters.

But bottom line? Go see this movie. Several times. Perhaps then after major success of this, Get Out, and Star Wars, Hollywood will stop pretending that movies led by black actors don’t appeal to mainstream (read: white) audiences. We vote with our dollars, so vote loudly, and vote often.

And stick around through the credits. The first after-credits scene (minor spoiler, but not really) of T’Challa speaking at the UN is a speech that should be printed on posters and hanging in your office. You will want it playing on a loop as motivation for us as humans to do better. And the end credit scene. . .  fans should be happy for another tease towards Infinity War.

Wakanda Forever.

4.5 out of 5 stars