Black Panther transcends the tropes of a standard superhero movie. Where recent flicks like Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League were fun beat-em-ups, Black Panther becomes something more than mindless action. It has a statement to make.
The movie is about T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he is left to fill the shoes of his recently passed father, assuming the mantle of ruler of the African nation of Wakanda. The leader of Wakanda gains the incentive of becoming the fabled Black Panther, the country’s greatest hero and protector. T’Challa struggles in this regard, trying to follow a tainted legacy and lead a country divided down the middle. Boseman follows up his premiere in Captain America: Civil War with another glorious performance, masterfully conveying the internal turmoil T’Challa deals with as he is left to grapple with a slew of startling revelations about his family and impossible decisions to make for his nation.
Where Black Panther truly escalates above the competition, however, is in its representation of Wakanda. The country was the source of a meteor strike thousands of years prior to the events of the movie. Within the meteor was a rare, extraterrestrial element: vibranium. When harnessed, vibranium becomes the strongest metal in the world, with the added bonus of being able to absorb kinetic energy. Having sole ownership of such a powerful tool for weaponry made Wakanda a frequent target of invasion, and they eventually countered this by masking their true power and cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. European colonizers found the nation inconsequential and glossed right over, and while the rest of Africa was invaded and enslaved, Wakanda secretly became the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
This leads to the movie’s strong socio-political themes. Wakanda is a diverse African nation of several cultures, and they play off one another in a unique manner, giving each a distinctly independent feel. Ideologies reminiscent of the days of the two world wars run rampant. The conflicts of the movie are powered by nationalism and isolationism, and the effects both can have on a people, be them positive or negative, are thoroughly explored. This is because Wakanda offers a chance for the writers to really delve into what a first world nation in Africa would look like, something director Ryan Coogler does in earnest. It may even be a critique of the policies of the western world throughout history. Some call it a forced political statement, but it is more of a historical analysis and cultural exploration if anything.
This becomes even more apparent by the role Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) plays in the story. Ross, a white, American CIA agent, accidentally winds up caught in the middle of Wakanda’s turmoil, and his fish-out-of-water experience is a curious reflection of the Hollywood norm. Many movies have come under fire for the inclusion of a ‘token black person,’ but Black Panther does the opposite. “Consider this:” wrote CNN’s Lisa Respers France, “A film that explores what it means to be black, centered on a black superhero, featuring a mostly black cast, and helmed by a black director is on pace to be one of Marvel’s biggest blockbusters.”
Coogler indeed did have a challenge before him. To make a movie about a black superhero was going to carry unprecedented weight, but he shows he was more than up to the task. The portrayal of African culture and history is accurate and refreshing, giving audiences a taste of an aspect of life that many may not otherwise be able to experience. Add on top of this that cinematically Black Panther is one heck of a well made movie, and the formula for success is ripe.
My appraisal for the movie’s cinematography is not a tacked on acknowledgement by any means. The acting, camera work, and soundtrack are all superb. There was one scene in particular where a massive fight erupted in a casino, and the entire confrontation, featuring dozens of combatants, was done through a single tracking shot. It was a marvelous action scene in a superhero movie that will hopefully set an example for others to follow in the future.
Though the entire cast plays their roles well, special mention must be made for the villains of the movie. Actor Andy Serkis is best known for his motion capture work, but Marvel gave him the opportunity to portray Ulysses Klaue in person. Serkis proved he doesn’t need a green screen to be a capable actor, convincingly giving the audience a showing of childish insanity that makes him a scene stealer when he appears.
The real show stopper in this movie, however, is Michael B. Jordan, who portrays main antagonist Erik Killmonger. It’s evident from his first scene that Jordan was waiting to get to play a role like this, and his work combines with intricate writing to make Killmonger Marvel’s best villain ever. The true depths of emotion he puts across make Killmonger’s actions, which can be quite malicious and radical, appear sympathetic to the audience. His character is the personification of the internal ideologies crippling Wakanda, and will leave audiences thinking critically, something no other Marvel villain has pulled off yet. A long standing joke among movie critics and fans was that Marvel suffered from a ‘villains curse.’ Jordan’s acting allows Killmonger to break it.
The only real flaw in the movie is its computer generated imagery (CGI). The special effects were painfully below Marvel’s usual standards. Some fight scenes were conducted in full CGI, and they would have looked great if they were rendered for a video game rather than a climatic moment of a feature length film. It breaks the suspension of disbelief and ruins Black Panther’s suit, which is one of the coolest parts of the character. CGI is never perfect, but Marvel has put out better displays than this.
Fortunately, this by no means squanders the movie. It ruins the potential awesomeness of a couple fights, but not much more. The strong themes and morals remain unaffected, and the story captures the struggles of both an individual and a nation wonderfully. Black Panther’s cultural significance makes it a true work of art, and it can present a real case for being Marvel’s best movie yet.
Final Score: 9/10
- Representation of Wakanda
Image credit: Marvel