Black Panther | Ryan Coogler | February 16, 2018
Like many of the best Marvel entries, Black Panther works because it is able to stand alone with the singular vision that is brought to life in grand fashion by director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station).
From the first moments of the animated opening that dives into the history of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, it’s clear that this is something different than we’re used to seeing from Marvel. This point is felt further with the opening scene set in Oakland during 1992 that focuses on old familial matters involving T’Challa’s father T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani playing the younger version of his father John Kani) and uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown). What happens has implications that play a crucial role in the future of Wakanda, as well as a critical plot point where Coogler (as well as co-writer Joe Robert Cole) center many of the film’s themes.
The story picks back up following the events of Captain America: Civil War, as T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to become the next King of Wakanda. It’s here we are treated to the colorful world of this technologically advanced nation that the rest of the world thinks is an inconspicuous third world country, but it’s anything but that.
The film succeeds in the world building of Wakanda, which bursts into life with not only the African costumes but the mix of futuristic developments thanks to their deep resource of vibranium. We spend time getting to know the various people of the nation that comprise T’Challa’s circle: his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett); his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright); his ex and current Wakandan spy, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o); a spiritual elder named Zuri (Forest Whitaker); his old friend and Border Tribe security, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya); dedicated Dora Milaje general, Okoye (Danai Gurira); and a rival rebellious tribe leader, M’Baku (Winston Duke).
Trouble lurks in the shadows with the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), whom we meet early on working with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) on the hunt to find a way to get to Wakanda, where he has big plans in store if he gets his way. His introduction is interesting and his motivations as the villain are actually understandable. It’s this bit of humanity that allows him to stand out as one of the best Marvel villains ever. The only issue is that the film introduces him and forgets about him for a large chunk. Once he returns, he is every bit as crucial to the plot, but it felt like he would’ve had an even greater impact than he already did if he had a steadier presence throughout.
There are some pacing issues, and the scenes outside of Wakanda feel a bit routine and more along the lines of the expected status quo of a movie within the Marvel universe. Not to mention a lot of the shoehorned one-liners and humor that are hit or miss (as in every Marvel film). The action sequences aren’t all that new or inventive but do serve an ultimate purpose.
Where Black Panther really succeeds is when it turns its focus and emphasis on character and a good hard look at important themes that can touch on social and political topics that are totally relevant in our past and present and are handled without ever being preachy. There’s also the colorful and vibrant cinematography by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, a well-captured score from composer Ludwig Göransson, as well as some exciting soundtrack contributions from Kendrick Lamar made exclusively for the film.
There are a ton of strong performances from the stacked cast, with its leading man Boseman every bit poised for the big-time starring gig as he had teased in Civil War. The real standout performance comes from Michael B. Jordan, who gives us such a compelling villain that you find yourself sympathizing with his motivations.
It was also great to see Andy Serkis get to chew the hell out of the scenery in a live action role. You have just as much fun as he clearly was having while filming this nutty character. Letitia Wright has an infectious and bubbly energy as Shuri that is a nice compliment to the more stoic presence of T’Challa, and although they have limited screen time, Sterling K. Brown and Winston Duke make the most of their scenes, with the latter proving that he may be a breakout star in the making.
For so much of its runtime, Black Panther is whistling a different tune than what we are used to seeing from Marvel, which makes the moments of it deviating back to the formula that much more frustrating because when it’s operating at its own unique tempo, it works like gangbusters. I just wish it kept the momentum going all the way, as it’s a good film that feels just a few steps shy of being truly great.