MOVIE REVIEW: Black Panther
BLACK PANTHER-- 5 STARS
To the uninformed, there is a heightened mystique about the Marvel world of Wakanda and its national ruler, Black Panther. This isn’t just another hero with a cool name and an origin from parts unknown. This isn’t just an ethnic token present just to balance demographics. Wakanda is an unconquered royal nation of the highest order, similar to Wonder Woman’s Themyscira. Everything within their protected existence stands for a superiority and a power all their own. As its leader, Black Panther is the living embodiment of that dominance.
For any Marvel Cinematic Universe film to do this leader and his civilization justice, it has to capture those traits of preeminence. Ryan Coogler’s film accomplished that and then some with a stature and ferocity fitting of the comic book legend. Pushing aside the proclivity to have a empowered science nerd or a plucky quipster as its heroic lead, a Marvel film hasn’t been this brawny, righteous, and tough since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Black Panther strides proudly and powerfully with every progressive step as one of the best MCU films we’ve ever seen.
Providing a resonant backstory to the mysterious hero introduced in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther dives headfirst and ritualistically deep in a new realm. Cloaked and barricaded from the rest of the outside world, the African nation of Wakanda hides an advanced civilization underneath its Third World exterior. For centuries, their people have been yoking the substantial riches and endless industrial and scientific potential found in the vast meteor deposits of the mineral vibranium contained in their borders. A bloodline of tribal kings, victorious against all neighboring challengers, has been granted the superhuman tonic and evolved armor to occupy the mantle of the Black Panther and guard the nation’s concealed existence.
After terrorist attacks claimed the life of the previous king T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, the burden of leadership and the power of responsibility has now been passed to his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Flanked by an old flame named Nakia (12 Years a Slave Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o), the fiercely loyal warrior guard of the Dora Milaje, led by Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira), and supported by the technology provided by his brilliant scientist/princess sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, soon to be seen again in Ready Player One), T’Challa find himself globetrotting to track stolen vibranium now in the possession of a long-time Wakandan foe Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his powerful associate Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a second-billed Michael B. Jordan). T’Challa’s quest for justice and exploration into monarchical family history uncovers a host of previous mistakes and secrets that put the nation’s present and future in peril.
Praise must be openly be given to the impressive ensemble cast in establishing this film’s palpable toughness. Every performer, large or small, gave the material its full gravity, and that deep roster includes the yet-to-be-mentioned Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, This Is Us Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, newcomer Winston Duke, and a steady Martin Freeman. There’s not a single unnecessary sideshow or lame comedic side character in sight, and that includes Andy Serkis deliciously chomping his scenes as the fiendish villain. Possessing the proper presence and physicality, Chadwick Boseman asserts himself like a champion and a dream come true in the title role. Michael B. Jordan is a game villain and an ideal mirrored foil for Boseman. If there is one revelation from the ensemble above others stealing thunder and scenes, it’s Danai Gurira and her stand-up-and-cheer intensity.
The richness of the mythology and world-building occurring in Black Panther comes out in every ethnically vibrant pore of the film’s soaring production values. Bolstering tribal dogan architecture with modern refinement, the ornate details of Hannah Beachler’s (Moonlight) enormous production design creations are off the charts at bringing the settings of the comic page to cinematic life. The armada of hair and makeup and the flashy costume design stylings from two-time Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter (Amistad, Malcolm X) drape the characters in head-to-toe majesty and striking sophistication. Current Mudbound Academy Award nominee for cinematography Rachel Morrison captures every flicker, tear, and tussle with a wide lens for vistas and action. The strongest and best aesthetic spice of all might be the musical palette combining a bombastic percussive and choral score from Creed composer Ludwig Goransson and a bold curated playlist of songs produced by Kendrick Lamar.
No MCU film has ever looked or sounded this way, and that is quite the punch considering the typical origin story blueprint that has become overplayed by Marvel despite its clear repetitive success at the box office. Producer Kevin Feige stepped back and gave a $200 million blank check to Ryan Coogler and the Creed and Fruitvale Station filmmaker delivered a victorious spectacle worthy of the popularity and reverence sure to be coming its way. The Oakland native has ambition and vision that cannot be bound. Coogler’s creativity skillfully combines the operatic and epic with the vibe of an emotional edge that never de-emphasizes the high importance that Black Panther represents. His talent is the strongest muscle on this superhero film physique.
LESSON #1: IT’S HARD FOR A GOOD MAN TO BE KING-- This lesson is the wording applied in this film to the classic “burden of leadership” trait. For leaders on this level, flaws are amplified, choices can be unpopular, and the stress and guilt only get greater. Maintaining one’s positive ideals is the adversity.
LESSON #2: TO SHARE OR NOT TO SHARE-- Wakanda’s stance of political posturing is fascinating and the social commentary parallels from the fictional to the actual are tremendous. Ignoring global participation and outside interests, its leaders have long chosen an insular path of self-preservation and self-reliance in secrecy that has led to sustainable success. Unfortunately, the rest of the world, particularly their fellow men and women of African descent, do not share a similar safe lifestyle of means, benefits, and luxuries, begging the question of whether Wakanda should share its wealth and knowledge with the world for the betterment of all mankind or remain a harbored pillar.
LESSON #3: CHOOSING LOYALTIES-- In a substantial demonstration of individuality competing with unity, nearly every character in Black Panther is faced with a defining choice of loyalty. All of the motivations and instigating emotions are in play, from love and family to national pride and royal devotion. Awaiting each person is an intense decision that will define them and their fate.