Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” follows T’Challa who, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed) from a screenplay he wrote with Joe Robert Cole, the movie evolved from Coogler’s long time fandom of the Black Panther comic.
Black Panther is a unique character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s not just a super hero, but a leader of his nation, as such he exists in both world simultaneously. The movie opens with a quick couple hits of backstory for those who aren’t familiar with the character’s origins, it also importantly points out that the mantle of Black Panther is something passed down from leader to leader.
We first saw T’Challa in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War where the death of his father pulled him reluctantly into the super hero world. In “Black Panther” we’re introduced to T’Challa’s impressive support system. His sister (who takes on the role of gadget master and technology expert), his former girlfriend (who is Wakanda’s chief spy), and the head of the nation’s all-female Wakandan special forces the Dora Milaje.
At the core of Black Panther are two characters struggling with their identity and their culture. One questioning it from the inside and the other from the outside. Black Panther conceives a world that is set apart from the harsh realities of our world in order to save theirs. Along the way sacrifices are made and one of those comes back in the form of the villain Killmonger to exact his revenge.
Where Black Panther is most successful is when it explores this dynamic. The other big story line is a bit of a shaggy dog story, just there to get you to a certain point in the movie and as a framework to hang some great action scenes upon.
Director Ryan Coogler adapts to the super hero genre quite nicely to the point where so many of the common tropes are included it becomes a bit predictable. But there are also a world of new characters, settings, and a sufficient amount of plot twists to keep you on the edge of your seat for much of the film.
The film is cinematic in scope and beautiful in design, but it does have a few moments of off-putting super hero computer generated graphics. As cool as an armored Rhino is to have in the film, you can tell it’s not really a part of the world. That said, people ride Rhinos into battle in this film, how cool is that! I also found that Coogler’s action scenes sometimes lost the thrill of the action in a way that can’t be made up for in the editing booth. But the film quickly recovered.
Chadwick Boseman returned to play T’Challa / Black Panther and brought with him considerable acting chops. Behind T’Challa’s eyes you see a strategist who is constantly concerned with how things will play out the best for the people of Wakanda. In Black Panther you get to see many more sides and deeper emotional conflict within the character and Boseman glides through the film handling all the angles with ease.
Michael B. Jordan worked previously with Coogler in both Creed and Fruitvale Station. That familiarity allowed Jordan to raise the villain Killmonger to a new level for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When he’s on screen, you can’t avoid him. Then, when the full extent of Killmonger’s backstory becomes evident, the audience is left to question if maybe the villain does have a legitimate claim.
For those who wish we had more Lupita Nyong’o in every film she’s in, you won’t be disappointed in Black Panther. Nyong’o’s chieff spy Nakia gets plenty of screen time to shine. She’s a bit of a rebel herself when it comes to Wakandan values and provides T’Challa some important insight at a key moment along with plenty of other support.
Dania Gurira, who will be instantly recognizable to fans of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” plays her role of Okoye, the head guard and chief protector of the king, with complete strength and wisdom but still a part of the complex political dynamics Wakanda finds itself in. She’s all business and all up in T’Challa’s business. It makes for some great moments in the film.
It’s fantastic to see somethings we don’t see a lot of in cinema: an African nation that is able to play with and beat the big leagues on their own, strong women leads who don’t need a man to get the job done, and a penetrating examination of our modern politics all while still wearing its super hero cape.
Black Panther doesn’t shy away from its politics. Among the important questions it asks are: what is the obligation of a people who can act to reduce suffering, but choose not to? What is our responsibility to those harmed by action or inaction of those who led us in the past? As T’Challa says in the film, “We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” We can all be super heroes if we just lived by that ethic.
Black Panther opens this Friday (actually tomorrow night with early showings). Advanced ticket sales are strong, so buy your tickets early. We recommend seeing this film on the largest screen with the best sound you can find. 3D not absolutely required, although it is offered.