Black Panther Review
NO, SERIOUSLY! THERE ARE SPOILERS!!!!!!
Marvel's The Avengers was released on May 4, 2012. That following January, 2013 brought my Sophomore high school spirit week. With a Disney theme, our class decided to assemble as the now legendary team for the live-action themed day. I was ecstatic until I realized that the only character I could accurately portray, and I was expected to portray, was Nick Fury. An awesome character played by the talented Samuel L. Jackson, but not an Avenger. It was at that moment I realized that, despite the diverse characters in Marvel and DC's other mediums, superheroes of color were virtually none-existent to the general movie-going audience.
So you can imagine my excitement when Black Panther not only serves as a worthwhile addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but stands out with its own sense of black agency. The Ryan Coogler directed feature stars Chadwick Boseman reprising his role as T'Challa from Captain America: Civil War. The prince of Wakanda must return to his home and decide the course of his nation following the death of his father, T'Chaka.
An extremely impressive aspect of this film is the performances from everyone who walks across screen. As you may have heard, T'Challa's inner circle are just as engaging as the Black Panther himself. I found myself hanging on to scenes with Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o, and Letitia Wright more than with Boseman. That is not to say he was a weak point, but the women around him were given such weight that where other female co-stars in the universe may have faltered, they surpassed. Not only capable fighters but three-dimensional characters, Nakia (Nyong'o), Shuri (Wright), and Okoye (Gurira) express a tangible relationship with T'Challa as well as each other. Shuri, in particular, provides some of the most natural humor in the MCU. A plus for a franchise occasionally critiqued for forced levity.
One of the elements that makes some comic book films so mesmerizing is an undertone of reality. Nowhere is this more masterfully displayed than with Erik Killmonger, played by the man I wish was my big brother Michael B. Jordan. This man is a phenomenal performer in any role, but this is one of his best. Killmonger is a cold-blooded mercenary, but it all comes from a place of righteous indignation of all things. To say that his goal was just a common revenge story would be gargantuan oversimplification. Is he broken by the death of his father at the hands T'Chaka? Yes, but that doesn't speak to the larger thorn in his side: How can Wakanda hide itself while their black brothers and sisters suffer elsewhere? I found myself thinking," I would totally be with you, man. Lets just drop the murder about 100%." Erik's plight is much similar to Loki's, but amplified by real-world issues which in turn amplifies Coogler's most important choice.
The decision to have Black Panther inhabit its own world more than Marvel's allows for so much creative freedom. Marvel president Kevin Feige should be applauded for giving Coogler the room he did. Of course, this film resides in the greater MCU. We saw T'Challa, T'Chaka, and Martin Freeman's Everett Ross in Civil War. By this, I mean the events of Black Panther are completely contingent on its own story points. Feige and company revolutionized franchise-making with Iron Man, but its nice to be reminded that a film can be a singular entity. The $201 million opening weekend for a new character speaks to the accessibility of this film.
What the box office speaks more strongly to is the call for change in the cinema. This is by far the movie's most outspoken feature. At its core, Black Panther is less about the superhero and more about T'Challa the African king. Wakanda is fully realized as a lived-in world through the efforts of production designer Hannah Beachler and costumer designer Ruth E. Carter. They created a nation that is just as much African as it is high-tech fantasy. I know I'm just a broken record in bringing up the wonder of a predominantly black cast with a black director and black head writer, but I'm going to bring it up anyway. This is huge for our community, and I'm thrilled that people of every shade are supporting it. This isn't about Marvel vs. DC. This is about Hollywood seeing that people of color can lead record breaking franchises like our white brothers and sisters. Just look at the recent Fast and Furious offerings. Say what you will about the quality, that is another financial juggernaut with a racial diverse cast. Now, Black Panther is doing near Avengers-level business and has the quality to match and even exceed in some opinions.
So, with all this praise, are there any negatives? Is this a truly perfect movie, or am I just collecting checks from Disney? While I am collecting Disney checks, I do have two legitimate gripes and a few nitpicks. Both gripes take place in the third act. Number one: I was not a big fan of the finale's division of time The first two-thirds find Killmonger fighting the Wakandans who side with Panther, while our hero fends against the opposing forces. I stated early that Erik's beef was against the country's xenophobic mindset more than one person. That being said, I wish T'Challa and Killmonger's final confrontation began sooner with more time to marinate in it. The third act we were given felt more like two meshed into one for myself. This may change on a second viewing, but at the time of writing this review I've only seen the movie once.
A thought that won't change is on the decision to display the final confrontation in complete CGI. I know that these films need copious amounts of visual effects for their other worldly properties. However, the Russo Brothers showed that hand-to-hand battles between enhanced combatants can be done practically in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Their fight was pretty to look at, but I couldn't help but think how intense it could be if we had two actors performing choreography in practical suits. Compare this to the battles for the throne against Killmonger and M'Baku (Winston Duke) and the nightclub sequence. The practical nature caused conflicts that left you on the edge of your seat because, just like Killmonger's motivation, they felt real. Not a deal-breaker, but a negative none the less.
My nitpicks are small, as they should. The first battle during Nakia's rescue was great in concept. For anyone who hadn't seen Civil War, it gave a strong display of T'Challa's skills. It is unfortunate that an over reliance on shaky-cam made it difficult to follow. This is the only scene I can recall with this problem, so it falls into nitpicks. Finally, I was initially put off by the "Oh, no! T'Challa's dead!" subplot. We've seen this trope numerous times to build false tension. In this case, it only gets a slap on the wrist because the supporting characters we already know and love are the ones we spend time with.
Marvel's Black Panther not only adds another fun entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but excels in its franchise through social relevance for the audience and the characters it presents. Besides a few hiccups, Ryan Coogler and team craft a lively world filled with characters you will be hard pressed to forget and a protagonist who goes through visible and compelling change. Black Panther stands the test not only as a comic book experience, but as a game-changing film.
PS: Extra points for Black Panther elbowing a freakin' rhino to the ground! Not for animal cruelty. Just thought it was an awesome moment.