Review – Black Panther (2018)


A familiar refrain that I’ve heard in discussing Black Panther is its disconnection from Marvel Studio’s other movies, and you don’t have to have seen any other modern Marvel movie to understand the film, but the main character T’Challa has a robust introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Is this lack of Marvel Cinematic connective tissue a strength? The answer is almost unimportant, as it distracts from the truth of the matter: that Black Panther can easily crown itself Marvel’s most socially and thematically ambitious movie to date.

Directed by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther is the story of Wakanda—an advanced Afrofuturist city hidden deep in Africa, built atop the world’s only supply of the powerful metal vibranium—and it’s king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). After the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa inherits not only the role of King of Wakanda, but also the role of its protector, the superpowered Black Panther. Now two threats face Wakanda—arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis), and a mysterious ex-CIA operative nicknamed Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

Much of Black Panther’s staying power in the cultural zeitgeist—beyond the legitimate social achievements surrounding a big budget superhero movie having a black writer/director, and a majority black cast—is in its themes and underlying conflict. Its social impact can be compared to last year’s Wonder Woman, but Black Panther doesn’t stumble in the same ways that film does. Wonder Woman’s first movie was undoubtedly enjoyable, but a year away from the hype and enthusiasm it’s easier to note how it discards its female supporting cast a third of the way into the film and its fumbling approach to theme and messaging. These are issues that don’t plague the much stronger Black Panther.

First and foremost, it’s difficult to come away from Black Panther without the impression that its characters are it’s greatest strength. T’Challa remains the compelling lead established in Civil War, but he risks not measuring up to his film’s supporting cast. I speak of Killmonger, of course, but also of the film’s fantastic female cast—T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and royal bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira). All of these actresses play fleshed out characters in their own right, an uncommon complexity across multiple women that is sadly missing from most Hollywood films.

The production and costume design of Black Panther is also top notch, invoking a blend of African cultures and styles to create an Afrofuturist vision of Wakanda, and while the film also offers up action scenes with all the glitz and CGI of a typical Marvel movie, it’s standout fights occur when T’Challa is stripped of his vibranium suit and superheroic strength. In these moments he is just a man, and the film comes alive with real weight and danger. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie’s action scenes don’t quite live up to these moments. Black Panther may not be Superman, but his strength and invulnerability mean nothing short of another superhuman poses him any threat. As is so often the case, T’Challa is far more interesting as a man than as his masked alter ego.

But the source of much of Black Panther’s strength is in how its conflict and villain challenge the status quo of Wakanda and the themes it embodies. Wakanda could be an African nation that serves as a beacon of hope, offering aid to its own continent and to those disenfranchised by the current world order the world over, but as the movie opens, T’Challa inherits the isolationist policies of his forebearers; a status quo Michael B. Jordan’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens wants to violently tear down. But is he wrong? In his methods perhaps, but even T’Challa is forced to question the evil Wakanda has allowed through its inaction. It’s these sort of heady themes—either literal, or as potentially a metaphor for how we as Western nations have, and still, act—that elevate Black Panther beyond the simplicity of the statement that great power equals great responsibility.

The eighteenth(!) movie set in a Marvel Cinematic Universe first created back in 2008, we can only hope Black Panther sets the stage for the new generation of Marvel movies that will follow Avengers: Infinity War in April. Whether or not Black Panther is Marvel’s greatest movie is up for debate, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not their most thought-provoking.

You can currently see Black Panther in cinemas.

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