What can a land known for shepherds and textiles offer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? There is already New York, a location featured or mentioned in nearly every phase of the Disney/comic giant series, and it has that fancy tower that’s in all the posters. There’s London, too. Can a director with two highly acclaimed films under his belt boost his profile more by doing a tentpole that is merely a peg in a larger empire? In a crowded field of superheroes, origin stories and connected plotlines, where does a hidden world fit in? In the case of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” it doesn’t have to fit in – it breaks out.
Debuting in 2015’s “Captain America: Civil War,” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home country of Wakanda, a secured African nation closed off from outsiders and home to Earth’s largest holding of vibranium, the world’s most indestructible metal. T’Challa takes his father’s place as king before the nation’s five tribes. Unlike previous origin stories, like Tony Stark’s in “Iron Man,” Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and Dr. Stephen Strange in “Doctor Strange,” it is Wakanda that is given the back story. The scientifically advanced nation is flowing in natural beauty, technology and tradition. Women are in positions of power, from the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to T’Challa’s all-female security team Dora Milaje led by the fearless Okoye (Danai Gurira) to the 16-year-old princess who overseas the nation’s technology, Shuri (Letitia Wright).
But “Black Panther” doesn’t start there. It begins in 1992 in Oakland, California, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler’s hometown, and the base for future villain Erik Killmonger (frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan). The American-born Wakandan fights, kills and steals his way back to the continent to take the throne, exposing a cultural rift between Wakandans’ desire to stay isolated and oppressed populations’ desire for the right tools to overpower their oppressors. The need to help the outside world with Wakanda’s gifts is also seen through T’Challa’s former flame Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who left the country to help assist young African women but comes back to his coronation and is swept into a hunt for an old foe, Klaue (Andy Serkis, a familiar face to MCU fans).
“Black Panther” is more than a popcorn action flick. It offers elements rarely seen in movies appealing to a wide audience. In less than 2½ hours, you are treated to contemporary issues affecting Africans and African-Americans, sounds from Kendrick Lamar that mirror global settings, costumes and styles that celebrate heritage and beauty, and well-rounded characters that you will remember long after the film finishes. As far as the action, it’s hard to believe that Coogler could top the one-take round he accomplished in 2015’s “Creed,” but he does with a knock-down, all-out scene inside a South Korean casino. There will be people young and old who want to be as brave as T’Challa, who may be sympathetic to Killmonger’s cause, who desire change as much as Nakia does or who will go after science like Shuri.
As much as it is about character and plotline, the costumes and makeup in “Black Panther” are stunning. Powered by designer Ruth E. Carter, the textiles carry elements of traditional African fabrics with shades of Afrofuturism, a style that is not often seen in mainstream films.
If there is one major flaw, it would be the level of realistic violence in this PG-13 movie. There are shoot-outs, stabbings and martial arts that are usually not seen in Marvel movies (this is still Disney), and that may be unexpected for some audiences. Typically, I’m not a fan of PG-13 violence as it is less believable and the editing can be very bad. However, the violence here is close to being R-rated. “Black Panther” also feels like a speed bump in the overall Marvel timeline. There are no Infinity Stones and the only crossover characters are Klaue and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), and maybe someone else (wink, wink). Yet, the same could be said about those Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Thor outings. They’ll all come together with the next “Avengers” movie this summer.
Like how “Guardians of the Galaxy” introduced more comedy into future Marvel movies, “Black Panther” brings out a new level of releasing new faces, new elements and new backgrounds into a genre that reach millions. Personally, for the first time in a long time, I saw a hairstyle I wanted to try with my natural locks and I wanted to see a movie again immediately.
4.5 out of 5 stars
There’s a new king in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and his name is “Black Panther.” The latest film in the ever-expanding superhero franchise is much more than your typical Marvel movie.
The comic book film delivers the thrilling action, stunning special effects and good humor that the MCU is known for. But under the dynamic direction of Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” is driven by its socially conscious story and complex characters. After the movie ends, it’s the characters and questions that will stick with you.
“Black Panther” follows the ascent of Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to the throne after the death of his father in “Captain America: Civil War.” T’Challa returns to the mythical African nation of Wakanda, which practices its tribal traditions alongside its highly advanced technology. The isolated country is the home of vibranium, the rare and powerful metal from which Captain America’s shield is made.
After T’Challa comes into power, he faces a threat from a familiar enemy, the criminally greedy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and a challenge to his rule. A royal rival emerges in Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a vengeful American who has his own personal ties to Wakanda. As T’Challa strives to protect his people, he is confronted by the sins of the past and must decide how his actions will shape the country’s future.
Backed by a soaring, drum-heavy score, “Black Panther” transports moviegoers to a lush land untouched by colonization. With its mostly black cast, the film addresses current circumstances faced by black Americans and celebrates African heritage. These aren’t themes usually covered within a comic book movie, but Coogler, who is also African-American, has made them accessible here.
“Black Panther” intelligently tackles T’Challa’s unique double role – he’s not only a superhero, but a sovereign – by exploring political issues. He struggles with whether Wakanda should share its technological abilities with other countries or continue to stay out of the world’s problems. It’s a relevant question as our own country wavers between isolationism and globalism.
Through the character of Killmonger, the film asks if it’s Wakanda’s duty to arm oppressed peoples with weapons so they can rise up against their would-be conquerors. Jordan is phenomenal as one of Marvel’s most well-developed villains, eliciting sympathy for the Wakandan outsider. Though his methods are extreme, Killmonger’s motivations make sense.
As T’Challa, the excellent Boseman is reserved and understated as the newly minted king. He quietly takes in everything around him, running the risk of being overshadowed by the film’s other characters. But that’s because the ruler-in-training is wise enough to learn from others, including the strong women who surround him.
“Black Panther” offers Marvel’s best depiction yet of fully formed female characters. T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (newcomer Letitia Wright), is a brilliant, witty scientist always on the cutting edge of technology. Savvy spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former girlfriend, has found her calling helping others and encourages the king to do the same. Brave warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira, “The Walking Dead”), the leader of T’Challa’s all-female bodyguards, is loyal to her mission and her country.
In addition to navigating social issues, “Black Panther” features exciting action. The film experiments with its car chase and fight scenes, adding layers of ingenuity to what would otherwise be paint-by-number sequences. A minor flaw is that the CGI looks a bit off in some of the film’s crowd-heavy scenes.
“Black Panther” may be the 18th film in the MCU, but it largely works as a standalone movie focusing on a single nation and its people. Coogler has created a thought-provoking masterpiece that marks a turning point for the MCU. The franchise has shown itself willing to tackle social commentary and represent more of its diverse audience. May “Black Panther” reign.
4.5 out of 5 stars