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BLACK PANTHER (2018) review

February 19, 2018

 

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written by: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: Ryan Coogler
rated: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture)
runtime: 134 min.
U.S. release date: February 16, 2018

 

Last year was a great year for Marvel Studios, with the release of three sequels (“Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Thor: Ragnarok”) that felt different from its predecessors, offering exciting new takes in their respective franchises. 2018 will be known as a milestone year for the studio, thanks to the release of “Black Panther”,  a bold and visually stunning movie, written and directed by Ryan Coogler (“Creed” and “Fruitvale Station”), that finally brings representation to the superhero genre for a demographic that has too often been relegated to the sidelines. It’s a bold move centering a big-budget blockbuster on a character that may not be as familiar as other Marvel Comics characters, in a movie dominated by rich African characters that give a chance for black men, women and children a chance to finally see themselves in such a movie. It’s a movie that isn’t just a crowd-pleaser, but one that contains important themes and tackles relevant issues. 

I was sold on Black Panther when the character made his dynamic big-screen debut a couple years back in “Captain America: Civil War”, stealing every scene he was in. After that, I was ready for more. That being said, I’ve always liked the character T’Challa (ala Black Panther) since I was a kid, reading his appearances in Fantastic Four and Avengers comics and eventually in his own series. From his striking appearance to his feline stealth moves, his character has always carried an intriguing aura of mystery.  Including T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a great step in expansion – and really, after “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange”, it makes sense to add some royalty to the mix.

 

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The movie opens with two prologues that offer some history and context to the world created by Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole. There’s an animated segment that details how an otherworldly mineral landed in Africa, a glowing lavender substance that burrowed itself deep within the land’s heart long ago, enriching those who lived there. Yet the five tribes of Wakanda fought over what would be known as vibranium, resulting in the Jabari tribe turning to the mountains. It would be determined that the mythical Black Panther would unite the tribes and a chosen Wakandan would be crowned king. Since then, this land and its people, hidden from the rest of the world (and therefore free from colonization) have evolved and developed the most advanced technology in the world.

We turn to Oakland, California, where in 1992 a young King T’Chaka confronts his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who has been smuggling vibranium from their homeland. N’Jobu has an opposing ideology, believing what the Wakandans have should be utilized by black people around the world, you’ve been oppressed for decades. The outcome of this encounter will prove to be pivotal, one that will have reverberations to the present day.

Fast forward to present day Wakanda, where it is time for a new king to be chosen after the events of “Civil War” caused T’Chaka’s death. His son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is next in line to inherit the throne, becoming the latest protector of the realm, donning the mantle of the Black Panther, a symbol of security and authority. After earning his crown in a combat ceremony overseen by Wakandan elder statesman, Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and his noble mother, Queen Romanda (Angela Bassett), T’Challa learns that arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a longstanding enemy of Wakanda (whom we last saw in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) has been selling vibranium on the black market. With the help of Okoye (scene-stealer Danai Gurira) General of the Dora Milage (all-female warrior guards to the king), his ex-girlfriend/spy, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and his brilliant little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa decides to track down the one-armed Klaue and bring him to justice. Their plan is complicated when Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an former U.S. black ops soldier whose plan is to use vibranium weaponry to take over the world, but not before he takes the throne of Wakanda for himself.

 

 

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This is Coogler’s first foray into spectacle filmmaking and he has made an exhilarating feature with dazzling visuals, propelled by strong character development. It’s clear he has an assured hand at balancing such a large-scale and he was wise enough to bring along with him collaborators from his previous films. Rachel Morrison, his cinematographer from “Fruitvale Station”, reunites with the director, offering a rich colorful palette that accentuates the culture of the land. There’s also talent from “Creed” on hand, production designer Hannah Beachler, who deftly handles bringing to life the royal throne room as well as Shuri’s tech-laden work area and then there’s composer Ludwig Göransson, who incorporates actual musicians from Africa to form the heart of his exiting score.  And then there’s veteran costumer designer Ruth E. Carter, who’s previously worked on Spike Lee’s movies and in Chadwick Boseman’s previous movie, “Marshall”. She worked on everything from the different indigenous garb of the tribes to the colorful dashiekis worn by African men and women, as well as the vibranium suits worn by Black Panther.  There is definitely a vibe of royalty and respect throughout, thanks to these artists, yet at the same time there’s also a lived-in feeling throughout the movie, making what we see in “Black Panther” seem like a real world that’s been around forever.

What’s most fascinating about the movie’s screenplay is how it incorporates relevant and relatable politics into its story. If that feels like a stretch to have in a Marvel movie, then maybe you’ve forgotten the topic of global surveillance in “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and the notion of government intrusion of “Captain America: Civil War”. Many critics and moviegoers fail to see that superhero movies can offer more than just slick CGI and battle sequences, hopefully this movie can serve as a reminder that there can be more than such a narrow-minded stereotype. Indeed, the politics of Wakanda add to the movie’s success, providing viewers with something to really think about, leaving them to relate and understand the point of views of both the protagonist and the antagonist. Wakanda had certainly benefited from maintaining their stance on isolating themselves from the rest of the world, but then there’s the outsiders they could’ve helped using their advances in technology. Yes, there’s the risk of those advancements getting in the wrong hands, but isn’t taking such a risk better than not doing anything when you clearly could do something?

Throughout the course of the movie, T’Challa comes to terms with his people’s legacy, for better or worse. He realizes that the decisions his forefathers made, especially a specific choice his father made, were wrong and eventually harmful to their nation instead of helping build a fruitful one. A nation that can sit back and serve itself, while others are in need, loses its greatness. This is what fuels the motives of Killmonger, the primary antagonist of “Black Panther”, it’s just that his extreme methods are clouded by rage and revenge, not thinking how his forceful approach effects other Wakandans and anyone else he thinks he can help. The ideological differences of T’Challa and Killmonger somewhat resemble that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X (for a real-world comparison) or Professor X and Magneto (if you want your comparisons within the Marvel Universe) and Coogler and Cole are smart to show how both sides of the battle make sense.

Killmonger isn’t alone in his conviction that Wakanda should have a more forceful global presence, that they should do something to help others in black communities around the world. T’Challa’s best friend and confidant, the troubled W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), head of security for the Border Tribe, shares his discontent with the fact that Klaue, the man responsible for his father’s death, managed to evade capture and winds up siding with Killmonger’s line of thought. Both men are allowing their emotions, fears and pain – even their pride and ego – supersede the wisdom and forbearance a leader needs. On the flip side, another leader, M’Baku (Winston Duke, another scene stealer), leader of the Jabari Tribe, who worship the gorilla gods, would rather distance himself and his people from the other tribes in Wakanda and the outside world – even though he did compete against T’Challa for the crown. It’s hard to believe one can find all of this in a “superhero movie”, but it’s there and then some.

 

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So, while you can enjoy the physical action of some scenes, its the interaction between characters the characters that standout – after all, what would a kingdom be without its people? Something special can be found from just about everyone in this ensemble cast and that’s thanks to the screenplay allowing enough space for some great actors to do their thing.

Boseman and Jordan both have unforgettable presences here, in all their scenes but there’s definitely a spark when they’re together. They keenly convey what is required of each character – T’Challa being a calm soft-spoken nature, a consciensious thinker who springs to action only when he must, while Killmonger withholds his simmering rage, releasing it at just the right moment and when he does, his self-made power is something to behold. Both actors have these attributes down, exuding a magnetic screen presence throughout. But what’s truly unforgettable are the women of “Black Panther”. I’ve been a fan of Nyong’o since “12 Years a Slave” (which earned her an Oscar) and I knew Danai Gurira was hired for the amazing ferocity she brings to her role as the sword-swinging Michonne in AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, but they both truly shine in their roles here. Gurira especially, who commands the screen whether she’s throwing a spear at her moving target or watching helplessly as her king is in danger.

A discovery for me though is Leticia Wright, who is so enjoyable as Shuri, the confident sister of T’Challa, who happens to have some of the best lines in the movie (especially when she’s working as Q to his James Bond). Her scenes with Boseman are wonderfully heartfelt, portraying a relationship that has sibling in-jokes and loving antagonization, as well as one of mutual respect. Speaking of mutual respect, I appreciated how T’Challa is written and portrayed as a man who doesn’t feel insecure or threatened by these three bold and strong women. He trusts them and relies on them to have his back and, out of love and friendship, he is dutifully bound to protect them as well.

 

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While Coogler creates a movie that has a thriving idyllic African nation that wants nothing to do with the outside world, he imbues the overall story with a great deal of humanity. I really like the idea of T’Challa having to wrestle with the black experience he’s unfamiliar with, one that takes place outside the confines of Wakanda. It’s something that can certainly be developed in the future even more (without out a doubt there will be a sequel, but you can return to Wakanda in a couple months for “Avengers: Infinity War”). Sure, this is a Marvel movie, but it also has Coogler’s deliberate stamp, who’s created something influential, filled with pride and intelligence, while still playing in the MCU toy box.  I hope the same will be said for “Captain Marvel” when it comes around next year.

“Black Panther” suffers a bit from superhero movie tropes in the movie’s final act. We get the inevitable separation of the title character, who’s off fighting the main villain, while the supporting heroes band together to assist him on the climatic battlefield (reminiscent of last year’s “Wonder Woman”). Even Martin Freeman‘s CIA Agent Everett Ross (also first seen in “Civil War”, who spends to much time “explaining” throughout the movie, something that’s inevitable, I suppose)  sees some action, when he sits in one of Shuri’s virtual vehicles in an effort to prevent Killmonger’s flying vehicles carrying weaponized vibranium from leaving the country. That bit feels a bit too much like a video game in an effort to give the white guy something to do, I guess. These beats are rarely missed in superhero movies and are hard to exclude I suppose.

Some will say that the first successful black superhero movie was “Blade” back in 1998, which was another Marvel creation. Although that paved the way for “X-Men” movies, I don’t think an audience uninterested in comic books or a half-human/half-vampire antihero were able to embrace a Wesley Snipes hard-R action flick back then (despite its two sequels). Marvel Studios has layed out the perfect path leading to “Black Panther”, making right now the perfect time for audiences to embrace an inspiring movie that puts strong and powerful black men and women front and center.

 

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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