The Only Black Panther Movie Review You Need
Hail to the king, baby!
After more than a decade of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the one thing that this world has lacked is royalty. Well, human royalty. Thor shouldn’t count since he’s a Norse demigod, right?
With the release of Marvel’s late title, we finally have some royal (human) blood fighting bad guys and upholding justice! That hero’s name is Black Panther, and the titular movie about him is one of the most ambitious projects to date in the MCU. How well does the film do in establishing Black Panther as the next great Avenger? Read on…
First of all, let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Black Panther technically debuted in Captain America: Civil War, when Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa interacts with his new friends, The Avengers. And that brings us to the second point. The Avengers play virtually no role in this film. It’s truly standalone in the same way that the original Guardians of the Galaxy stood on its own.
We already know from the trailers that T’Challa and the residents of Wakanda are a factor in May’s biggest movie, Avengers: Infinity War. That relationship is one-sided, though. Do NOT go into this movie expecting to see Iron Man, Thor, and/or Captain America. It’s the only thing that could cause you to leave the theater disappointed.
With the caveats out of the way, let me be blunt. In every conceivable way, Black Panther is a cinematic masterpiece. Let’s start with the basics. The film tells the story of T’Challa’s first days as the ruler of his homeland, Wakanda. It’s the most technologically advanced society on the planet. The rest of the world doesn’t know this, though. The kingdom hides itself from detection from outsiders.
T’Challa must decide what kind of ruler he will be for the people of Wakanda. Will he maintain the policies of his father or embark on a new path? Helping him in this endeavor are the fearsome Okoye (Danai Gurai aka Michonne from The Walking Dead), leader of the female protectors known as the Dora Milaje, his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o), and his brilliant sister, Shuri (I know her from an obscure television series called Humans, but you won’t know her from anything).
The women in Black Panther’s life largely define him. Okoye is as knowledgeable as she is ferocious, and she understands T’Challa’s shortcomings even better than he does. Nakia rejects the decisions of previous rulers of Wakanda, causing her to live amongst the rest of the human race, helping them stand up against oppression. And Shuri is the movie’s true delight, a joyously upbeat technological wizard who loves and teases T’Challa as only a younger sister could. Golden Globe winner Angela Bassett also appears in a smaller role as Ramonda, Queen Mother to T’Challa. And that’s what leads me to a crucial point about the movie.
The cast of Black Panther is one of the finest that you will ever see. Timing is everything in life, and the producers of this movie got as lucky as is humanly possible. Boseman was a casting masterstroke in the title role, but that choice happened many years ago. Other additions like Forest Whitaker and Michael B. Jordan are also known commodities. Even the reunion of Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis aka Frodo Baggins and Gollum isn’t the impressive part. It’s the castings of Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown that embody the lightning-in-a-bottle aspect of Black Panther.
Kaluuya was a virtual unknown at this time a year ago. Today, he’s the Academy Award-nominated actor who is the face of Get Out, a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Oscars. In Black Panther, Kaluuya portrays W’Kabi, the leader of the Border Tribe and the Avenger’s best friend. Brown’s had a similarly great couple of years thanks to the ascension of This Is Us, for which he’s won a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Brown has an integral but small role here as the uncle of T’Challa. Folks, when even the role players in a movie are Golden Globe winners and Academy Award nominees, we’re talking about a special cast.
The plot of Black Panther involves an attempt to bring justice to a known Marvel villain. When last we saw Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in the MCU, Ultron was accidentally ripping his arm off. Since then, the fun-loving psychotic has built a new power weapon using Vibranium that he stole from Wakanda. It’s the worst terrorist act that the country’s ever known, and they seek justice.
The task of bringing Klaue back to Wakanda falls to T’Challa, who feels conflicted about the choice. The situation grows more complex when Klaue’s talented ally, American black ops soldier Erik Stevens, enters the mix. He and his girlfriend have a Bonnie and Clyde thing happening (Klaue even says it), and the man whose skill earned him the unpleasant nickname of Killmonger wants to see Wakanda, too.
As the outsiders try to get into Wakanda, civil war threatens from within the country. One of the five tribes, the Jabari, attempt to wrest control of the crown from T’Challa. Led by an imposing warrior named M’Baku, the Jabari return to the capital for the first time in centuries to make a claim as the rightful rulers.
The struggle that Black Panther faces is how to earn the trust of his people while facing both internal and external threats. Like Thor, it’s a Shakespearean tale wherein family members all feel the pull of the crown. But the film has a second, less likely analog. It’s also unmistakably based on some of the concepts of James Bond, with Okoye operating as the M and Shuri as the Q. One tells him how to maximize the capabilities while the other provides him with the tools needed to meet his goals. Martin Freeman even works in this model as Felix Leiter, the American CIA official.
As for Black Panther himself, the character of T’Challa is refreshingly three-dimensional, something that’s not always true of comic book characters (I’m looking at you, Doctor Strange). He wants to do right by his people, impress the woman that he loves, and justify his family’s fate in him. All the while, he’s still suffering from the aftermath of his father’s sudden, tragic death.
Chadwick Boseman already proved his acting chops in great movies like 42 and Get on Up, but the first film that will be listed on his obituary is Black Panther. It’s a star-making role, and he shows that he is a star now by blending into the proceedings ably. When needed, he stands out as the gifted leader that Wakanda needs. At other points, he cedes to the other talented actors in the cast, letting them chew scenery.
I’m hard-pressed to pick the best villain in the film, as Serkis is having the time of his life as Klaue. Still, Ryan Coogler has an unmistakable favorite. The director first worked with Michael B. Jordan in the vastly underrated Fruitvale Station (available to watch on Netflix). Then, they restored the Rocky franchise to glory with the blockbuster hit, Creed. Coogler was honorable enough to dance with who brought him by giving Jordan a meaty part in Black Panther.
Without spoiling anything about the character of Killmonger, he’s capable of acts of great villainy. The explanation for how he wound up on this path is completely understandable. He has a vision for how to improve the world, making it a better place. To achieve that dream, he’s utilitarian in his actions. It’s akin to Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming, a terrifying enemy of the state who stumbled into criminal behavior almost by accident. Marvel’s gotten better in recent years at giving villains the needed backstory to make them as interesting as the heroes. Black Panther is perhaps the best yet in this area.
Black Panther is a bit unusual for a comic book movie in that the action scenes are relatively spread out. Depending on how you count, there’s between four and six of them in a 134-minute movie. Rather than do lots of whizbang explosion sequences, the priority is the majesty of Wakanda, a breathtaking place that I expect Disney to bring to life in their parks in future years.
Even though Stan Lee created the character in 1966, an odd similarity exists with Walt Disney’s vision for E.P.C.O.T. Perhaps Lee was impacted by the public announcement and included some of the premises with his own city of the future. Whatever the explanation, Wakanda feels right as a part of Disney, a place Uncle Walt would have loved to visit in one of his parks. The film doesn’t bring all of it to life, as some of the bazaars and shops in the city feel unexplored. The teases it does show are wonderful, though.
My main nitpick about Black Panther isn’t something I can discuss in detail without spoiling anything. The gist is that for all its wonders as a technological utopia, some citizens are pretty quick to revolt. We already had one Civil War in the MCU. It’s a bit soon for a second one. That’s the most modest of complaints about an otherwise exceptional movie, though. Black Panther is a 9 out of 10. I would probably rank it about seventh in the current pantheon of MCU movies.
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