Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, John Kani
MPAA Rating: (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture)
Running Time: 2:14
Release Date: 2/16/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 15, 2018
You can feel the sameness of Black Panther in the structure of its story, its main character's arc from far more than ordinary to outright superhero, and its apparent need to connect this story to the larger Marvel universe of superheroes. Watching the film, though, is to see something completely different in the realm of these stories. Most prominently, it's about an African hero, whose roots and race are fundamental to the film's isolated world and its concerns with the hero's place in the wider world.
There's a specificity of culture on display here that has its footing squarely in the realms of history and fantasy. It all makes a certain kind of sense through the lens of the superhero narrative, in which the heroes are embodiments of some real idea and representatives of some aspirational ideal.
Ultimately, co-writer/director Ryan Coogler's film is about the conflict between reality and some grander ideal. The story's villain, who stands apart from the cookie-cutter mold of comic book villains in the way he directly represents a philosophy, is a man who has been shaped by reality. The hero has, too, despite living in a science-driven utopia, hidden away from the world and wanting for nothing.
Both men have seen the same ways that the forces of history have affected people of African descent on the continent and around the globe. T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), our hero who's also known as the Black Panther, has decided the best route for his advanced nation of Wakanda is to hide it away from the rest of the world. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the nominal villain, has decided that the best way to enact change is to become part of the system. In his mind, that's the best place from which to topple that system.
Our hero wants to preserve his small, clandestine corner of the world against those who would exploit it. Our villain wants to save one segment of the world's population from oppression.
It takes Coogler and Joe Robert Cole's screenplay some time to get to this central conflict, but when it does, the film takes on and embraces a brand of politically-minded, philosophically-driven, and genuinely thoughtful storytelling that we're not accustomed to within the realm of superhero movies. That the details of the story fit into a certain mold is, perhaps, to be expected, but in mind and in look, the film is still different enough to make it stand out from the recently busy crowd.
The plot starts with T'Challa assuming the mantle of king, after the death of his father T'Chaka (John Kani) in a terrorist attack at the United Nations (This, as those familiar with this superhero franchise will recall, happened near the start of Captain America: Civil War). After T'Challa fends off a challenge to the throne (in a fight with spears and shields, set against the dazzling backdrop of the edge of a waterfall) and becomes king, there are some loose ends to tie up. Namely, there's the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who stole a portion of the nation's vibranium, an indestructible metal that's Wakanda's most precious material resource.
Much of this part of the plot feels like franchise clean-up, although Coogler certainly makes the most of it, with a dynamic rumble in an underground casino in South Korea (It's a faux one-take that moves from a balcony to the casino floor multiple times) and a chase through some city streets. It feels fairly routine, and seemingly aware of that fact, Ludwig Göransson's familiar score transitions to and eventually melds with a more beat-heavy accompaniment. It's a reflection of the film's standard: giving us what we expect but imbuing those expectations with a specific, cultural touch.
Along the way, we get a sense of the new characters here, too. There's Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), a spy who travels across Africa to stop various crimes (We meet her infiltrating a human trafficking ring) and has a once-romantic relationship with T'Challa. The king's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the country's leading technology expert, who gives her brother all of the tools and gadgets required for his adventures as the Black Panther. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is a member of Wakanda's all-women royal guard—a fierce, devoted warrior who's married to a local rhinoceros herder named W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya).
All of this is entertaining and subversive enough as a superhero story, as well as an act of solidifying T'Challa/Black Panther as both the superhero norm and a culturally specific character (essentially pointing out that, yes, anyone can and should be a superhero, regardless of any racial, national, or ethnic factors). The massive change arrives with Killmonger. It's not a change in the formula, since it all comes down to the hero and the villain battling it out in various sequences, but it is a shift in the weight of what that conflict means.
There's a lot to find both terrifying (in his murder-happiness and his ultimate goal) and sympathetic (in his past and his motive) about Killmonger. He may be a villain, but he's not entirely wrong. Jordan's performance, too, is an outlier in such movies. Going against the grain of the over-the-top menace and/or charm of such characters, he offers a more naturalistic approach that gives the character a sense of genuine pain and anger.
A good villain can make one of these movies. Black Panther gives us a great one, primarily because, between the bigger action sequences, the battle between him and the hero becomes an ideological one.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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