Review: "Black Panther" (2018)
Title: Black Panther
Genre: Superhero/Sci Fi/Action
Director: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, and Andy Serkis
Bias: I wouldn’t even know where to start.
In A Nutshell: Following the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), Prince T’Challa, aka the Black Panther (Boseman), ascends to the throne of the hidden – and highly technologically advanced – country of Wakanda. While attempting to capture Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), he discovers a new threat to his country, throne, and the world – Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a highly-trained killer.
The Critique: It would be difficult, if not impossible, to give this film its due without getting into spoilers, so be warned that I’ll be doing just that.
[SPOILERS AFTER THE IMAGE BREAK]
Black Panther is a film that’s operating in a number of different registers. It is, of course, the 18th film in the decade-old Marvel Cinematic Universe, and directly picks up plot threads from both Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). It’s the first MCU film to feature a person-of-color in the lead role. Just in functioning as a superhero film that’s a lot to tackle. Director Ryan Coogler (directing the screenplay he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole) handles both of those effortlessly, handling the MCU connections in a matter of minutes, and weaving blackness into the heart of the film. In doing so, he elevates the movie beyond standard action or superhero movie fare by making the central conflict one between the power of the Afrofuturistic imaginary and the reality of the historical and continuing oppression of blacks around the world.
Wakanda, as a wealthy and technologically advanced nation that has never been colonized, represents an imagining in which Africans were never enslaved, exploited, or had their culture erased, and instead were able to use their resources to develop on their own. Killmonger, the film reveals, is the son of a Wakandan who was sent to America as a spy that became “radicalized” when faced with the reality of hundreds of years of oppression faced in the African diaspora – all while Wakanda maintained a strictly isolationist policy. While there are valid arguments to be made that in positioning Killmonger as a fairly unrepentant villain the critique contained in his politics is effectively de-fanged, Coogler and Jordan imbue the character with an intensity and complexity that maintains the challenge in his argument. In effect, Killmonger is correct. Wakanda remained hidden out of fear and were able to do so because of their position of privilege, while millions suffered and died. What makes Killmonger the villain isn’t his revolutionary politics, its his corruption in attempting to use (in the words of Audre Lorde) “the master’s tools” – invasion, exploitation, and imperialism (at one point, having taken the throne from T’Challa, Killmonger states “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire,” a deliberate allusion to the British Empire) – to bring that revolution about. Articles have been (and will continue to be) written about this, so I’ll leave it there, except for one final point. Killmonger’s final line in the film, when offered the possibility of being saved, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage” has stunned me both times I’ve seen the film, both for its power and for its presence in a big budget superhero film.
On the other side, there is T’Challa and Wakanda. While it’s true that Wakanda is a fictional country, it’s brilliantly realized, both as a positive portrayal of an African nation onscreen (which is criminally rare) and as a utopic sci-fi setting populated entirely with black men, women, and children (which, again, is criminally rare). The production design by Hannah Beachler (Moonlight) is astonishing, presenting a modern/futuristic cityscape extrapolated solely from a myriad of African cultures (echoed in the amazing costumes by Ruth E. Carter (Selma). Wakanda becomes a physical embodiment of what was taken by imperialism. Again, there’s a lot to dive into, there.
If there are flaws in Black Panther, they are those I’d attribute more to the genre than the film itself. While not technically an origin film (T’Challa already occupies the role of the Black Panther in CA:CW) it still has to work as an introduction to both the character and his world, while also establishing the villain and stakes. As such, there are inevitable moments where the movie lags a bit, and others where it might feel familiar (comparisons have been made, at the plot level, to Thor: Ragnarok, and they’re not unfair). However, it executes those tropes effectively, while also adding moments of fun – there’s an entire James Bond-like sequence in the middle of the film that offer stand-out moments for T’Challa, Nakia (Nyong’o), the Dora Milaje general/bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), and T’Challa’s sister/tech guru Shuri (Letitia Wright, who steals nearly every scene she’s in with her mischievous energy). The women in the film are often front and center, and deservedly so.
Shout-out: I’m just going to go with the performances overall, as there are way too many great ones, from newcomer Winston Duke as M’Baku, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, Angela Bassett as T’Challa and Shuri’s mother Ramonda, and Forrest Whitaker as Zuri. And I could easily go on. This is probably the strongest cast Marvel’s ever put together.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: I’m long past being able to rank the MCU films numerically, but Black Panther is easily among the best of them. As I've seen it twice in theaters already, and will probably see it at least one more time, I'd say see it at least three times in theaters.