- Movie Rating -

Black Panther (2018)

| February 16, 2018

When the #OscarsSoWhite scandal popped up two years ago addressing the lack of diversity from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I argued that it wasn’t the Academy that needed to change, but the industry at large.  Two years later, that concern is still valid but I will admit that I see changes taking place.  Last year’s Wonder Woman was a giant step in the right direction for women (at least for the moment) and so too is Marvel’s Black Panther as a step in the right direction for people of color – one of the best assets of this film is that it allows their voices to be heard without forcing them to be heard second-hand (that is massive progress).  It is directed by a black man Ryan Coogler and it is beautifully written by a black man Joe Robert Cole.  It has a cast comprised mainly of notable and first time African and African-American actors, allowing blacks to have a go at the tentpole market in a way that never feels like pandering.

Black Panther is a bold and beautiful action epic that tells its story in a way that is fearless, adventurous and refreshingly new.  The freshness of this film is what surprised me the most.  This is the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve been critical lately of this assembly line of one particular film relying so heavily on the films that came before.  That’s why Black Panther works, it is its own movie with its own agenda, focusing on a culture that is too often minimalized or ignored.  Yes, it connects to events that took place in Captain America: Civil War, but that’s only a light touch.  Once that foundation is established, the movie goes off on its own – there is no Iron Man, no Thor, no Hulk.  Much like Ant-Man this is its own separate film with its own separate agenda.

The agenda is put forth by director Ryan Coogler who previously directed Creed, another movie that takes place deep into a long-running series.  Black Panther too is about the destiny of the hero who must pull himself out from under the shadow of the legacy of a famous father who has been lionized by history.  But he must also follow the altered destiny of a sin that his father once committed.  The son is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who inherits the African kingdom of Wakanda, a place that in terms of production design is marvel to behold.  This is a unique African world populated entirely by blacks and run using futuristic technology that the rest of the world can only dream of.

What is striking is that the movie isn’t another Fight Epic.  It deals with the characters, their responsibilities to themselves, to each other and to the greater good.  Upon the tragic death of his father, T’Challa inherits a flawed kingdom, damaged by the previous generation and having to deal with the consequences of their actions.  That’s a bold step in a genre that usually prefers its conflict to come from trademarked supervillains.

There is a villain, of course, named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) but his agenda is not merely global domination.  He is a Wakandan who was raised in The United States and his challenge to T’Challa is both reasonable and deeply flawed.  He wants Wakanda to be part of the larger world rather than retreating from it.  Yes, he’s the villain and you dislike him because of his actions but you understand what he wants for himself and for this nation.  His presence causes T’Challa and the tribes of Wakanda to rethink their role in the world.  He’s not the cackling villain with a burn-the-world philosophy – for that we get Andy Serkis having a blast as Ulysses Klaue, a guy who can barely contain the hilarity of his own bend-in-the-brain.

Boseman, Jordan and Serkis are part of a great cast of characters, each with a motivation and an agenda beyond just functionality.  T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is Q-like designer of her society’s technology.  There’s also Nakia, a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s former lover.  There’s W’Kabi (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) T’Challa’s best friend whose loyalties come into question.  And my favorite, Okoye (Danai Gurira from “The Walking Dead”), leader of an all-female tribe of warriors who act as the royal family’s bodyguards – she’s so interesting, I’d like to see a movie just about her.  Added to this cast is also Forrest Whittaker and Angela Bassett; Winston Duke as a gorilla warrior and John Kani as T’Challa’s father.  This is a great cast of actors.

Of course, the characters match the world in which they exist.  In much the same way that Peter Jackson established Middle Earth for the Lord of the Rings series, so too does Coogler’s creative team take great pains to establish the secluded African nation of Wakanda.  We get its ancient backstory about how five tribes went to war over an element called Vibranium which was ingested by one adventurous soul and gave him (say it with me) superhuman abilities.  The warrior becomes The Black Panther and unites the tribes to form Wakanda.  This is told in flashbacks much in the same way that Galadriel opens Fellowship with the legend of the nine rings.

The crowing of T’Challa as Wakanda’s leader is kind of amazing too – a mystic ritual in which he is able to share an audience with his father in the great beyond in order to gain his wisdom.  It is mirrored later by another mystical journey from a character whose destiny is much more troubled.

Inside of that is the political intrigue and some deep contemplation (as much as a Marvel actioner can contemplate) on the importance of the role of this kingdom on the rest of the world.  Much like Captain America: Winter Soldier contemplated the machinations of a world government built on secrecy and violence, so too does Black Panther illicit questions about the important role of a government on a troubled world.  What is the role of T’Challa to his kingdom and the world at large?  What are the responsibilities?  The movie bookends with two scenes that bind together beautifully and address those questions in a thoughtful way.  What T’Challa intends plans to do at the end of the film is built on the idea of building a better world.  I liked his idea.  I liked his adventure.  I liked this movie a lot.



About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) Filed in: Action