REVIEW: Black Panther (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The following is a review of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther — Directed by Ryan Coogler.

We’ve seen plenty of superhero films before. We’ve seen superhero films with social commentary before. We’ve had people of color as the leads of comic book films before — you need only look at the forgotten Blade-trilogy, which definitely deserves a rewatch, to figure that out.

But even Blade isn’t the only African-American-led superhero film. We’ve seen Catwoman with Halle Berry, and we’ve seen Steel with Shaquille O’Neal — but both of those are poor examples of genre films. ‘Superheroes of color’ have mostly been pushed to the background or remained only as supporting characters like Storm in the X-Men films or even War Machine, Heimdall, or Falcon in the Marvel Studios films.

Black Panther, however, is the first of its kind, in that it is the first time a major motion picture company like Disney has handed the reins to a superhero blockbuster film about a superhero of color to an African-American director — who also co-wrote the script with another African-American man. Not just a superhero movie, but, actually, a superhero movie about Africa, about blackness, which features a cast consisting mostly of people of color. It is not just a superhero blockbuster miracle, it is a studio system miracle and it is long overdue. This is Black Panther.

Black Panther is the newest chapter in the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which takes place right after the events of the blockbuster film that first introduced moviegoers to T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) and the Black Panther-mythology — Captain America: Civil War.

After the death of King T’Chaka (played by John Kani) of Wakanda, T’Challa is getting ready to accept the throne. However, before being accepted as the new King of the technologically advanced hidden country of Wakanda, he potentially has to take on challengers from other tribes. Like, the powerful M’Baku (played by Winston Duke) from the mountain tribe known as the Jabari.

But as T’Challa comes to learn, an African-American challenger is on his way from Oakland, California. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan) is a former black ops soldier who now works with black-market arms dealer and longtime foe of Wakanda, Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis). Killmonger intends to overthrow T’Challa and change the destiny of the hidden African nation.

Black Panther is a very good movie — it is a new strong film for the superhero genre — but, more importantly, it is also a cultural moment. Everybody talks about it, and for good reason, this is a movie that a lot of people have been waiting for for a long time. And as I am very happy with the film, I want to get the few issues that I have with the film out of the way, before I shower it with praise.

Even though Marvel Studios haven’t yet won an Oscar, their films have been nominated for multiple Oscars — primarily for their visual effects work. Unfortunately, I actually do think that Black Panther has issues with CGI-heavy scenes. Some elements of the film just do not look right — including, but not limited to, one specific animal, as well as most of the action fight scenes when T’Challa is in his Black Panther-suit.

Many of these fight scene shots take place during the final act of the film, and they don’t look very appealing. Unfortunately, some of the action scene CGI work reminded me of some superhero fight scenes in films from the mid-to-late 2000s. It is also fairly disappointing how underlit the first action sequence is. While some of them are great, more than one action scene in the film are tough to follow. But that’s pretty much it for the negatives.

I know exactly where I want to start with my positives. My favorite thing about Black Panther is how well-realized Wakanda is. This is a huge part of the Marvel universe, but also a place that is ripped from the comics and therefore not somewhere you can just fly to. This isn’t New York City. This isn’t California. This isn’t Berlin. Like with Asgard in the Thor-films or the many worlds that the Guardians of the Galaxy travel to, Wakanda is a comic book creation — and making those work can be quite challenging.

Somehow, however, the team behind Black Panther pulls it off. Director Ryan Coogler, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, composer Ludwig Göransson, the art and costume directors along with, finally, the visual effects team manage to give us a living and breathing Wakanda. It feels so cheap to state — even though this ‘classic line’ is true in this case — but the environment, the country, the neighboring tribes all add up to what is basically a character in the film. Wakanda works so well. This is first-class superhero world-building.

Recently, there have been a lot of discussions about whether or not a non-white James Bond would work. If you are at all unconvinced, Black Panther might just win you over. I know, it doesn’t quite sound right, but somehow a superhero movie, which mostly takes place in Africa, borrows a lot of elements from the James Bond-films. This film basically has its own Q division, complete with gadgets and upgrades that need to be explained and shown off to the central character. Oh and not only that, the film even has a great casino scene. Yes, this is a Marvel movie. There is a Stan Lee cameo in here, but, at times, it really does feel like a Bond-movie.

And, in stead of traditional eye-candy Bond girls, the women of Black Panther are genuine highlights. You’ve got Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) the head of the Dora Milaje, a female special forces group that defends Wakanda and its King. Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) is a driven woman who, at one point, works as an undercover spy for Wakanda. And Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), the super intelligent younger sister of T’Challa. Gurira, Nyong’o, and, especially, Wright are all excellent here.

This is not at all just T’Challa’s movie. There are so many great characters in here that almost all of the film’s best moments feature supporting characters more prominently than T’Challa. But Boseman really does a good job with the hand that he is dealt. Boseman plays a reasonably stoic and introspective new king. That isn’t necessarily a favorable position. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Just like how Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker stole The Dark Knight from the titular character played by Christian Bale, Black Panther — the film — is ripped out of T’Challa’s claws by the performance delivered by the film’s main antagonist who is played by a compelling and intense Michael B. Jordan. This is an antagonist with clear motivations, which do, in fact, make sense, and whose mission is somewhat compelling. He goes about it all wrong, of course — he is a villain, after all — but you understand his mission. If he weren’t so trigger-happy, then this is a character who you could’ve sided with.

And that’s the thing. A superhero movie hasn’t been this political since maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Black Panther‘s strong opening flashback sets up a narrative that ultimately combines the story of an isolationist African country and the exiles who believe that Wakanda could and, indeed, should have done more to prevent the struggle of those affected by the African diaspora. This is a superhero film that discusses moral complexities and touches on a lot of political issues — hot-button issues.

And it works. Ryan Coogler can do it all. Fruitvale Station, Creed, and now Black Panther. This is a director who keeps on putting out strong material with some challenging genres. He has made a great biographical drama, an outstanding sports film, and now one of the most fascinating and thematically rich superhero films that Disney and Marvel have ever put out. Black Panther is exactly what the superhero genre needs right now.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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