Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Produced by Kevin Feige
Written by Ryan Coogler/Joe Robert Cole
Based on “Black Panther” created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
Today is the day that I have had to eat the largest plate of crow I have ever eaten in my life. And there’s a lot of people I owe money to. Let me explain: many times in the past I have pontificated my opinion that a movie faithfully based on the character of The Black Panther would never be made. And if such a movie were made then it would be such a racist bastardization of the character that it would be utterly worthless. I went so far as to bet a whole lotta people money that a Black Panther movie would never be made. And if you know me and know how cheap and stingy I can be then you’ll understand what such a radical act of me betting money is.
There are few times in my life I have been truly delighted to be proven wrong as I was today seeing BLACK PANTHER. At the movie’s end I was cheering and clapping right along with everybody else, white and black in the sold-out theater, standing to my feet with pride and total joy. Words are a poor thing to communicate the feeling I had at seeing how a character I’ve loved and yes, revered in comic books since I was knee-high to a knee had been translated to the screen in such gloriously rich and respectful fashion. BLACK PANTHER joins movies such as the 1978 “Superman” the 1989 “Batman” “The Phantom” “Watchmen” “Hellboy” “Thor” “Iron Man” “Wonder Woman” “The Avengers” “Guardians of The Galaxy” “Logan” and all three “Captain America” movies in what I personally refer to as Superhero Cinema. They’re not just superhero movies or superhero films. What all those movies have in common for me is that they possess some unique, special quality that lifts them out of the ghetto of just being about people in fancy costumes beating the piss out of each other and attains a level of artistry that defines the genre and forever changes what comes after it. And trust me, after BLACK PANTHER, all superheroes movies will never be the same and most definitely movies about Black Superheroes will never be the same. There is no way they can be.
Following the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) at the hands of Helmut Zero in “Captain America: Civil War” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his homeland of Wakanda to embrace his destiny as not only it’s King but as it’s protector, The Black Panther. T’Challa is assisted in his rule by his regal, noble mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) his impossibly brilliant sister, the Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) who thanks to her Wakanda Design Group creates technology both functional and beautiful. To stand at his side and watch his back is Okoye (Danai Guirira) General of The Dora Milaje, the all-female elite special forces squad that also serves as T’Challa’s bodyguards and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) a member of The War Dogs, intelligence operatives Wakanda has in every country of the world, carrying out covert operatives to one end: preserving the secret of Vibranium.
Vibranium is the source of Wakanda’s power and technology (it’s the stuff that Captain America’s shield is partly made out of as well) and for thousands of years, Wakanda has maintained the illusion of being a struggling Third World country. The reality of Wakanda is so much more thrilling and astounding.
Barely has T’Challa secured his right to rule in ritual combat with M’Baku of the Jabari Tribe (Winston Duke) than he is confronted with two enemies. One is old and well known; Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer/merchant who is the only outsider who has ever stolen Vibranium right out of Wakanda and lived to brag about it. The other is new and while his origins are shrouded in mystery his knowledge of Wakanda is not. Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is a former CIA Black Ops soldier who goes by the code-name of Killmonger and as the ritual scars covering his body can attest to; he earned that name the old-fashioned way.
But it’s not just physical foes T’Challa must confront in his new role as King and as The Black Panther. The world is changing and Wakanda’s isolationist polices must change as well. But if they do, how can he insure that the vastly superior Wakandan technology and Vibranium will not be used for evil purposes? There is a reason why Wakanda has never shared her technology and by changing her policies how will it change her people?
Yeah, that’s heavy stuff for what is supposed to be just a superhero movie, right? But that’s the whole point. BLACK PANTHER isn’t just about superhero stuff. T’Challa is also the political leader of his country, it’s rightful hereditary ruler and as The Black Panther, the living avatar of Bast, The Panther Goddess of Wakanda, it’s religious leader as well. That’s a lot of ground to cover but as T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman is more than up to the task. I liked his take on T’Challa. In Boseman’s hands, T’Challa is a well-rounded character expressing the various aspects of his kingship when they need to be expressed yet never losing sight of the fact that he is still learning.
I’ve never seen a movie where so many actors shamelessly steal scenes every chance they can and their fellow actors let them do it with such good nature. If I had to point to a MVP for this movie it would have to be Letitia Wright as Shuri. She and Boseman have an absolutely terrific scene together where she comes across as a pint-sized Q outfitting her big brother for his James Bondian mission in South Korea. But Winston Duke as M’Baku is a thisclose runner up as he starts off as what I thought was a just a minor nod to his comic book counterpart but surprisingly turns out to be a major player in the third act.
What else? Well, me saying that Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Erik Killmonger should be no surprise. Killmonger is my favorite flavor of Bad Guy. He does deplorable things but as we learn more about his history and character it’s hard not to see his point of view. We may not agree with it but it’s one that makes you think that maybe Wakanda isn’t the perfect place it’s made out to be. Andy Serkis is having the time of his life playing Klaue and I always enjoy a Bad Guy who has a sense of humor and isn’t afraid to show it. Martin Freeman is another one of those actors who is so good that we tend to take him for granted. He spends a good deal of screen time being the only white person we see but somehow never seems out of place and I appreciated that he wasn’t made the butt of jokes simply because of his being white. This movie is too smart for that. Daniel Kaluuya here proves that his jaw-droppingly good performance in “Get Out” wasn’t just a fluke. His character’s relationship with T’Challa is one of the best things in the film.
Thanks to the movie’s outstanding costume design, production design and a commitment to lovingly embracing Afrofuturism, Wakanda is a place as fabulous and mythical as Asgard. Make no mistake, there’s an entire culture presented to us here. Wakanda has a history, a mythology, a world view that we have to believe in if we’re going to believe in The Black Panther and far as I’m concerned, the movie succeeds magnificently. This is a movie that is not ashamed of celebrating African culture, intelligence, creativity and family. It has fun with it’s action sequences and special effects but takes time to explore weightier themes such as the responsibility of countries wealthy in resources to those who are oppressed and have far less and how far those responsibilities should go. You’ve no doubt been hearing all sorts of good things about BLACK PANTHER and wondering if a movie can live up to all that hype. This one does not disappoint. For once, the hype is all true.