Black Panther February 20, 2018
Michael B. Jordan
2 Hrs., 15 Mins.
aving provided us with more than a decade’s worth of actioners starring pulchritudinous blonde dudes named Chris, I’m glad Marvel’s decided to start the year with a movie that isn’t totally throwaway. The company’s latest canon entry, Black Panther (2018), is one for the history books: It’s the first Marvel feature to be directed by a black filmmaker, the first to almost exclusively star black actors, and the first to primarily employ black costume and production designers.
That Black Panther has joined the superhero milieu nearly a decade after
Marvel's cinematic existence became commonplace in popular culture is a mind-boggle (but also sort of not), especially considering how many sequels Gwyneth Paltrow’s been able to make a living off. But the result is so immediate and affecting, we needn’t dwell on the past. This is visually splendorous, action-packed, and socially conscious genre pasturage that trades Marvel’s usual frivolousness for substantiality. It is fantasy with a purpose, cinema that feels like so much more than escapism. It is a thrilling progression.
The movie takes place shortly after the lackluster Captain America: Civil War (2016), and involves the African prince T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) assumption of the “Black Panther” title of his native Wakanda following his father’s death.
The intricacies of Wakanda, and this particular title, are better, and more succinctly, explained in an early sequence. Wakanda is a covert, technologically advanced African nation which survives off a powerful metal called Vibranium; the Black Panther is a superhuman warrior who uses that Vibranium to protect his people from the threats of outsiders and local foes alike.
In the movie, our paramount antagonist comes in the form of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a wronged cousin of T’Challa and co. who seeks to overthrow the rather utopian Wakanda. Determined and ruthless, he wants to utilize the region’s natural and technological resources to rewrite society as we know it – an ambition that, when explained, is clearly an aftereffect of understandable frustration.
The feature goes through the motions of the usual good-conquers-evil storyline. But like everything else in the film, much about it marks a detour from the norm. Part of our villain’s anger has to do with the oppressions he’s faced as a black man; the struggles our hero faces just as he reaches the top subtly mirror how people of color so often have to work miles harder to get to positions of power. And Wakanda is a character in itself, a plush dreamworld in which black excellence is mighty and boundless.
In Black Panther, the action is great and so are the comedic flourishes. But what’s so invigorating about the film is that it is so celebratory of its black identity while still smartly paying attention to the setbacks and obstacles that come with it.
It is very much the work of its 31-year-old co-writer and director, Ryan Coogler, whose previous two features, 2013’s Fruitvale Station and 2015’s Creed, similarly explored the experiences of a young black man trying to find himself against a backdrop of extreme circumstances. Although it’s common for directors with noticeably personal styles to find their directorial preferences undercut by the superhero formula, like in the cases of Kenneth Branagh or Shane Black, so much of what made Coogler a unique voice is found here: the film is a big-budgeted expansion of what he’s done so well in the past.
The actors are just as lucid. Featuring big names (Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Boseman, Forest Whitaker), luminous newcomers (Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright), and soon-to-be-huge veterans (Danai Gurira), not a star is wasted, with many giving performances exquisite enough to start new chapters in their respective filmographies.
While Boseman is terrific here – all quiet retrospection and stoically old-fashioned heroism– the actors supporting him make the biggest impression: Jordan puts his villainy forth almost sensually; Gurira steals every scene she’s in as a ferocious warrior woman; Wright is a kick as Boseman’s Q-reminiscent, wise-cracking kid sister with a hell of a brain.
Black Panther’s got a hell of a brain, too. When so many products to come out of the superhero woodwork desire to superficially entertain us for a couple hours without doing much else, this particular film deviates from the trifling status quo. It’s Marvel’s most conscientious, and important, work to date. And, just a handful of weeks into February, one of the best movies of the year. Don’t miss the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack, either. A