OnScreen Review: "Black Panther"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Buoyed by significant hype, anticipation, and expectations leading up to its release, Black Panther is the latest film from Marvel that has burst onto the scene and changed the landscape of the superhero genre. Marvel set the stage for Black Panther by introducing the character of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. Boseman acquitted himself well in that, sliding in effortlessly beside the already established characters of Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, et al. It effectively whetted the audience’s appetite for a standalone movie. Marvel has also been incredibly smart in its choices for the director’s chair for their movies and have encouraged their directors to cast a vision and empowered them to be bold. It’s quite the hot streak, and Ryan Coogler continues it here, crafting a movie that is satisfying on multiple levels.

Most prominent has been the cultural significance of the film. Based on the opening weekend numbers (over $200 million for a three-day weekend, $242 million for a 4-day weekend number, in February!!!), and my personal theater experience (my audience was about 2/3 black on a Saturday night… during a snowstorm… in Maine), the film has struck a chord. I don’t remember Blade being that big of a deal when it came out, perhaps because it was right at the proto-stages of the modern superhero craze. Regardless, Blade always seemed to resonate more as a sci-fi character than as a superhero.

Black Panther is a film that is fully immersed in black culture and grounds the film in the African roots of the director and most of its cast, where the fictional country of Wakanda is located. Wakanda is an impressive creation, a technologically advanced society hiding in the heart of Africa. The capitol casts a vision of what a black society untouched by white interference (colonization, slavery, apartheid, etc.) could look like. I’m ill equipped to go into any great depth about the costume and production design is influenced by black history and culture, all I can say is that it is front and center and looks and feels very detailed and that attention and care was put into every aspect of it.

If Coogler just stopped there, it would probably be enough to make a successful film that is different enough to distinguish itself from other superhero movies that deal with its main character dealing with a crisis of some kind and new responsibilities while growing into the role of superhero. T’Challa must deal with a power struggle in the wake of his father’s death in Civil War when he assumes the throne. But the importance of grounding the film in black culture also provides the crux for the conflict in the film too. It forms and shapes the divide between T’Challa and the film’s villain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

panther1.jpg

Coogler, who also co-wrote the script, essentially posits the question, “Where was Wakanda?” Why did a technologically advanced African country would stand idly by while so many of people from Africa or of African descent experienced so much horrific hardship and oppression? It’s a question that Jordan’s Killmonger forces T’Challa to address, both as the son dealing with the sins of the father and as a leader in how to lead Wakanda into the future. Jordan’s Killmonger is the physical embodiment of dealing with the past for T’Challa and Wakanda. Also, Jordan is so good as the villain that he steals the movie from Boseman, like how Heath Ledger stole The Dark Knight; some of the best superhero movies are made by the quality of the villain. Boseman almost seems bland in comparison to Jordan’s charisma.

Finally, while the film works on a cultural level and as a superhero movie, it also excels at being a compelling movie on its own, transcending the genre, again, like some of the better superhero movies do. The Dark Knight is a crime drama, Captain America: Winter Soldier is a 70s conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist film. Black Panther is a classic story of a kingdom and a power struggle to be king. Aside from connections back to Captain America: Civil War with Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis reprising their characters from that movie, this film is entirely self-contained in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focused on telling the story of its characters without having to address how it will fit into the larger narrative. And yet they still branch out into other places of the world, including a great section where T’Challa and a team comprised of Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and special forces leader Okoye (Danai Gurira) go on a James Bond-style mission to Busan, South Korea, complete with T’Challa’s own version of Q in the form of his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), another scene stealer.

Panther2.jpg

This movie also boasts an impressive cast on top of the people already mentioned. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker provides some acting gravitas to the proceedings as the Queen Mother of Wakanda and elder statesman, respectively. Recent Best Actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya has a supporting role as W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend. Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown appears in flashbacks involving T’Challa’s father visiting Los Angeles. It also features some impressive production quality. Costumes are vibrant and colorful, as are some special effects-heavy supernatural scenes. Rachel Morrison, herself nominated for an Oscar for Mudbound, provides some fine visuals as cinematographer. The visuals of this film pop off the screen.

Last year, Get Out was released around the same time of the year (Feb. 24) and it was the first movie of 2017 to be penciled into my year-end list. Black Panther has done the same in being the first movie that I will be penciling into my Best of 2018 list. Black Panther is a real accomplishment for Marvel, but really for Ryan Coogler and the crew he assembled for this film. To view this film is to see someone fully in charge of their craft. The progression he has made from Fruitvale Station to Creed and now to Black Panther is impressive and exciting. I love seeing new, exciting directors succeed and Coogler is also bringing a new perspective on a mainstream movie to mainstream audiences. I want to see more of what he has to offer, and I want more of Boseman, Jordan, Nyong’o, Wright, and others in Wakanda and outside of Wakanda.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars