Every culture is built on traditions. And traditions can be important, even valuable. But it’s necessary to realize when they can be harmful or restrictive. Black Panther understands this, and in adapting a fascinating, compelling world steeped in tradition, it’s not ignorant enough to avoid questioning when a traditional philosophy fails a culture.
Following the events of Captain America : Civil War, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is being crowned King of the nation of Wakanda: a highly technologically advanced country due to its adjacency to an alien metal called vibranium, which the rest of the world perceives as just another third world African nation. However he soon finds trouble when his throne is challenged by an outsider (Michael B. Jordan) who wants to reveal Wakanda’s secret and use its technology to dominate the world.
Black Panther is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, who’s certainly one of the best filmmakers to work with Marvel yet. He imbues the movie with commentary and a surprising knack for world building. The nation of Wakanda is very well realized, a great marriage of African heritage and technology that really works well. The tribal culture, clothing, society, language, and customs are all based in real African traditions, but with a few distinct choices, though logical given the set-up. It’s a wonderfully interesting environment, but Coogler (as well as a few characters) are critical of it as well. While Wakanda’s age-old isolationist foreign policy makes a kind of sense, the movie makes a point of how this philosophy is more damaging on a greater scale. There’s an undercurrent too of the people of Wakanda’s relationship (or lack thereof) to the black experience and racism outside of their country, and it informs an important part of the conflict with the villain. T’Challa, as newly crowned king and time-honoured protector of the realm, Black Panther, is forced to question whether their secret is permitting Wakanda to be passive and ignorant to the greater problems in the world -problems that their technology could easily solve.
T’Challa has a great arc in this movie and Chadwick Boseman gives a great performance. We’ve never really seen a superhero with his level of political power and as such, politics must inevitably play a part in his story. His struggle is rooted in his emotions over the recent death of his father, his attempt to live up to his legacy, but also his discovery of just how harmful some of those actions were and the necessity for change. There’s a plot device that allows him to communicate with his father and I’m very impressed how through this their relationship ends in not the way you’d expect. This movie loves indulging in the morally grey and that’s especially pertinent in T’Challa’s adversary, who’s far more fascinating. Despite the corny name of “Killmonger”, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is complex and committed, and completely understandable. He’s an extremist in his ideology for sure, but everything about his origin story answers for why he is the way he is, and on a few of his indictments it’s hard not to agree with his point of view. Jordan proves once again his chemistry with Coogler, delivering a stunning performance that’s sympathetic, hateable, and even moving. Using the same plot device, he communicates with a relative as well, and it’s an incredibly meaningful scene. He may in fact be the MCU’s greatest villain to date.
Lupita Nyong’o is of course really good as T’Challa’s love interest and spy Nakia, Angela Bassett is a powerful Queen Mother, and Forrest Whitaker is serviceable as Wakanda’s chief spiritual figure. The movie also features the recently Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya, a terrific Sterling K. Brown, John Kani, and Winston Duke as the leader of Wakanda’s estranged mountain tribe. Though this movie was praised for its predominantly black cast, it should also be noted the abundance of strong women, especially the breakout stars of Danai Gurira as a patriotic warrior and T’Challa’s loyal bodyguard, and Letitita Wright as his younger sister and head scientist. Martin Freeman is one of the token white guys, reprising his role as CIA agent Ross, playing the part of one of T’Challa’s allies well, though with a not-quite-convincing American accent. The other is his Hobbit co-star Andy Serkis, who’s a lot of fun as the secondary antagonist, vibranium weapons dealer Ulysses Klaue.
For the most part the action scenes are great, particularly the one-on-one fights which Coogler shoots with the same rawness as in his last film Creed. The visual effects are pretty good (such as in one eclectic car chase) with a few exceptions (such as some very bad rhinos). The costuming is really extravagant and rich, and the music is a great blend of modern and historic ritualistic African themes.
There are aspects of Black Panther that are very formulaic, as is expected with any Marvel movie. Most notably being how obvious it is from the very first scene who the villain really is. But within this framework, Coogler experiments, toning down the humour substantially from other Marvel movies (which is refreshing after all of last years’ could have qualified as comedies) in favour of a mature tone, and building a seeming utopia only to break it down. In so doing, he leaves behind a message that is memorable, and a hero even more so.