Movie Review: Marvel’s Black Panther
Review: ‘Black Panther’ is Marvel’s most ambitious movie yet
Black Panther has arrived, and not a moment too soon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe sure seems like a sprawling franchise, covering narrative ground from here to Valhalla. But it’s taken a decade and 18 movies for a non-white superhero to supersede being a bit player in the big story – and no, the green-hued Hulk doesn’t count.
So among the cheery hype and rousing acclaim welcoming this film’s debut, another, slightly coarser sentiment is also present: It’s about damn time.
Within that context, it’s truly elevating to watch “Black Panther” reveal itself as Marvel’s most ambitious movie to date. Granted, it doesn’t always deliver the visceral thrills of “The Avengers” (2012) or the crackling comedy of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), but it excels in terms of visual aesthetic, thematic heft and the depth of its performances.
Where other movies of its ilk hew towards pulp, “Black Panther” strikes Shakespearean tones. There’s a regal, prideful confidence in the way Chadwick Boseman plays the title character, who goes by T’Challa when he’s not under the mask. Despite playing a costumed superhuman who can can-opener an SUV with his claws, the actor takes the role seriously, imbuing it with the forthright sincerity he brought to biopics in which he portrayed iconic African-Americans Thurgood Marshall, James Brown and Jackie Robinson.
The movie begins with an introduction to T’Challa’s home, the fictional African country of Wakanda. Hundreds of years ago, an asteroid struck the nation, bringing with it a powerful extraterrestrial metal known as vibranium. The resource not only gives warriors extraordinary abilities, it also fuels Wakanda’s significant technological advancements. In the present day, the country passes itself off as a member of the third world, hiding its bustling, dynamic society within a holographic bubble.
If you saw “Captain America: Civil War” – and of course you did – you know that T’Challa’s father, Wakandan king T’Chaka, was killed in a bombing while visiting the U.S. “Black Panther” picks up after T’Challa convened with Captain America and Iron Man and co. He returns home to inherit the throne, participating in a series of rituals ranging from a physical, hand-to-hand challenge from the leader of a tribe of gorilla worshippers, to a trip to a spirit realm, where he visits T’Chaka for advice: “It’s hard for a good man to be a king,” the dead man says, under a brilliant blue and purple sky, black panthers watching over them from the limbs of a nearby tree.
True to his father’s word, doing the right thing – and, by extension, defining the right thing to do – eventually proves difficult for T’Challa. His first task as ruler is to track down Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a villain with a robotic arm, a maniacal grin and some very valuable stolen vibranium, which he plans to sell to an American CIA agent (Martin Freeman). Armed with new gear courtesy his tech-wizard kid sister Shuri (the delightful Letitia Wright), T’Challa tracks down Klaue for a rousing confrontation in South Korea, an extended fight-and-car-chase directed by Ryan Coogler with the virtuoso eye he brought to 2015’s “Creed” – he’s the most talented director yet to helm a Marvel movie.
Duking it out alongside T’Challa are his two right-hand women, General Okoye (Danai Gurira), the badass head of his imperial guard, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his ex-lover, now a Wakandan spy. They lead a supporting cast worthy of carrying some of the film’s heavier dramatic moments, including Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Rawanda, and Forest Whitaker as the spiritual leader Zuri.
This simple plot ends up opening a big can of ideological worms for the hero. A new rival emerges in Erik Stevens, a.k.a. “Killmonger,” played with great intensity, and thoughtful complexity, by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger’s arrival rips the lid off past strife in the Wakandan royal family, and reveals political implications regarding the country’s role in the global community. Friends, including W’Kabi (“Get Out” Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya), begin to cast doubt on T’Challa’s ability to rule, and he finds himself torn between maintaining the safety of his people by keeping their advanced society hidden, and sharing their secrets with the rest of the world, for the greater good.
That’s a dense foundation of ideas for “Black Panther” to build upon – ideas that extend into our own reality, where the temptation is to isolate and protect our own, because extending a hand means risking getting it slapped, or cut off. The T’Challa and Killmonger characters function allegorically, as men with noble goals fraught with complication; the Wakandan king’s calm, quietly impassioned sense of reason is offset by his dramatic foil’s brash, outward emotionalism. T’Challa employs violence only when absolutely necessary. But Killmonger, well, his name is an obvious tell.
Although the movie leads to a stereotypically noisy climax fraught with hyperkinetic CGI clashes, its denouement is inspiring for both the heart and intellect. It offers the immediate rewards requisite of the genre, but does not emphasize them – it’s the rare superhero epic that blossoms in the mind the next day. (And of course, it leads directly to Marvel’s next extravaganza, “The Avengers: Infinity War,” teased in a pair of clips embedded in the end credits.)
In a time of renewed and necessary emphasis on representation in pop culture, “Black Panther” succeeds wildly, but it isn’t content to merely put black heroes on the screen and coast on the goodwill. Co-writing with Joe Robert Cole, Coogler aims to push the boundaries of the Marvel boilerplate, and the movie speaks to us in a fresh, vibrant language, rich in color and ethnology, from set pieces to costumes to characters. It’s an entertaining and thoughtful film, no doubt, but beyond that, it represents something bigger and greater: progress, on many fronts.