‘Black Panther’ Review: Wakanda Forever
Since we last saw Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, his costume has gotten a major upgrade. It’s still virtually indestructible — it’s made from vibranium, the same fictional metal as Captain America’s shield — but now it can absorb and release kinetic energy in powerful concussive blasts. As an added bonus, the new suit fits inside a handsome silver necklace. When Black Panther needs protection, it magically coats his body like a bulletproof second skin.
This key change, turning an African necklace into one of the most powerful objects on the planet, is no accident. It’s also a symbol, representative of everything co-writer/director Ryan Coogler wants to do with his Black Panther, a film that imbues black identity and iconography with the power and allure of superhero imagery. The Panther, king of a secretive and highly advanced African nation called Wakanda, is the eighth different solo hero to headline his own Marvel Studios movie, but just the first one of color; Coogler pounced on that opportunity to create a bold new comic-book movie full of imagination and excitement.
Be warned, though: It starts a little slowly. A prologue set in Oakland circa 1992 introduces us to the previous king of Wakanda, T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani); next, a brief sequence in modern-day Africa brings in his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is on the verge of ascending to the Wakandan throne (and has already replaced him as Black Panther). That leads directly into the first of several underwhelming action sequences, an assault on a convoy of human traffickers, that is dimly lit and heavily edited. So far, nothing to write home about.
But then T’Challa and his crew return to Wakanda, and just about every scene from that point forward is better than the one that preceded it. The supporting cast is stacked with great actors, including a trio of strong female heroes surrounding (and, sometimes, overshadowing) T’Challa. There’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandan spy with a complicated relationship to the king, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of a group of badass warrior women who are basically the Wakandan Secret Service. Best of all is T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), the tech genius who provides Black Panther with all of his coolest weapons — and provides the movie with all of its funniest lines.
Around this time we also meet Black Panther’s villain: Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by Michael B. Jordan. The film teases out his motivations, so I won’t spoil them. But Killmonger, who ultimately becomes a kind of evil double of T’Challa with his own Black Panther costume, is everything most Marvel villains are not: A complex, multidimensional character with a complicated backstory, believable motivations, and provocative ideas. Erik and T’Challa’s beef runs a lot deeper than it first appears, and as the machinations for Wakanda’s throne play out, Black Panther’s story, written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, takes on the dimensions of a grand Shakespearean tragedy (if Shakespearean tragedies had, like, magic healing herbs and indestructible cat costumes). Killmonger’s methods may be repulsive and his goals may be horrifying, but he has several very legitimate reasons to be pissed off.
As played by Jordan, he’s also maybe the most charismatic bad guy in the entire history of Marvel. Killmonger’s attempts to conquer Wakanda don’t go exactly as he planned, but Jordan completely takes over Black Panther every single time he’s onscreen. We’re talking Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman levels of domination, where the bad guy is so compelling he almost makes you forget that the movie is actually supposed to be about someone else.
Killmonger’s plan is rooted in modern social issues, and another subplot about the possibility of Wakanda accepting refuges from around the world adds immigration into the film’s political mix. But Black Panther isn’t just a message movie; it’s also a magnificent piece of eye candy. The costumes, sets, special effects, and cinematography are all wildly inventive and gorgeously colorful. There’s some new gadget or vehicle or shot to admire in every single sequence. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun just sitting and looking at a movie.
A few minor characters and post-credits scenes aside, Black Panther barely concerns itself with the goings-on in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That works for Wakanda, a hidden land cut off from the rest of the world, and it works for Coogler, who has too many ideas for his heroes and villains to waste time servicing the casts of other franchises. While many Marvel films, even some of the good ones, feel like small pieces of a larger story, Black Panther is an entire cinematic universe unto itself. After one movie, Coogler has barely scratched the surface of T’Challa, his allies, and this nation’s epic mythology. I sincerely hope he’s not done with Black Panther. I’d be quite happy if he kept returning to Wakanda forever.
-While the costumes in Black Panther (designed by Ruth E. Carter) are magnificent, I must confess: I preferred the Black Panther costume from Civil War, and in particular the mask on that version. It just looked a little slicker and tougher.
-Martin Freeman, who plays CIA Agent Everett Ross, will probably go overlooked for his work in this film. But his ability to be the cheerful butt of jokes in nearly every scene deserves recognition.
-I mentioned the fight scenes earlier and, to me, they are the film’s one big deficiency. Even by Marvel’s standards, the action in Black Panther is subpar (the climactic large-scale battle sequence is the one truly awesome exception). This is particularly disappointing because Coogler did such an outstanding job with the boxing scenes in Creed, which were clear, exciting, and intense. I’m honestly not quite sure what happened this time, but if we do get a Black Panther sequel, I hope its action gets a little more attention and care.
-Yes, there are two post-credits scenes, one near the beginning of the credits and one at the very end. You’ll wait around for it and then say “That’s it?” as you walk out of the theater.
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