Black Panther – 2018
Director Ryan Coogler
Screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
After all of the hype, a masterpiece. This is a film and a character that Marvel could have coasted on. It still would have been a hit. There is a hunger for new ground in the still spectacular Marvel Universe. They know that Tony Stark is getting old, even if Steve Rogers is just hitting his stride. Thor had a funny last outing. Even with Hulk in tow, he’s got an ever shortening shelf life. The new heroes are fun, even great. There is plenty of good and great stuff to build on as they head towards the next Avengers film.
The build up for this film set an incredible plate for Coogler. Boseman’s T’Challa has the most meaningful story line and conclusion to Captain America: Civil War. He’s shown to be a thoughtful and intelligent hero. They could have made this a celebration fit for a king, maybe give some elf or something to fight with over vibranium. It worked for Thor, sort of.
Instead they did what they often do well, and they gave this most precious story to a story-teller who valued the material. They came up with a story that feels like Rocky III meets the Shakespeare. It’s the original Thor film ramped up considerably and with much deliberation. They made a classic, to add to all of the other great films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The story is simple, unless you break it down a few layers. We see the vision of Wakanda, a great hidden gem in the center of Africa. They were searching for El Dorado on the wrong continent. It’s a world created by a large asteroid made of vibranium. The five tribes gather for the passing of the leadership reins from one King to the next. There is one challenge, but that is ended honorably, and the man who would be king is celebrated.
King T’Challa is drawn out, early in his reign, to capture or kill one of his nation’s great enemies, Ulysses Klaue (Serkis). They catch him, but in the process he and his entourage of Wakandans (Nyong’o, Gurira, Wright) invite trouble into their little corner of the world.
The trouble takes the form of Michael B. Jordan as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. What his goals are will wait for your observation. His methods are as cruel as they are inventive, and his presence opens wounds in the form of “omitted truth” that could bring the Kingdom down to its knees.
The plot of this film is worthy of the character we saw in Civil War. He is given a nemesis who actually has some valid reasons for his decisions. At one point in the film, it’s hard to think he should have a reason to not succeed. His motives, as drawn by Coogler veteran Jordan, are developed in an exceptional poetry of vengeful aggression reminiscent of Clubber Lang. His Killmonger may be the best antagonist that the MCU has witnessed since Loki. He’s certainly the most fully developed.
Boseman, for his part, suffers a bit from the scenery chewing. Thankfully Coogler gives his character a journey and genuine suffering to overcome. He’s brought down to rise again, but how he does this is fresh and free of cliché.
There is a retinue of strong female characters that help in this journey. Gurira’s Okoye is a bodyguard faithful to the king of her country. She adds more grist to this warrior than even her character in The Walking Dead.
Nyong’o’s Nakia is beautifully drawn, in that her character is given a story that helps to develop the character, while staying true.
One of the better finds of the film is Princess Shuri, as played by the brightly energetic Wright. Comparisons to Q in James Bond abound, but she offers more in the way she interacts with her brother.
There are no bad or even half-assed performances in the film. The story is the most complete beyond the last two Captain America films. The stakes are real and there is some question as to how it all ends. One can be disappointed and satisfied at once in the most sublime way.
The complaints about the special effects are unfounded. This film has a delightful palette of colors and imagery on par with Doctor Strange and less gimmicky than Ragnarok. If there is a weak spot to the story, it’s that some strength outshine other strengths.
The onslaught of press behind this film is warranted, but not only for the intersectional reasons the media wants to throw in your face. This is an ageless story about a world we all would love to visit. Who it represents is important, but it shouldn’t be a victory limited to race. To leave it there would belie how important it is to humanity that we tell good, relatable stories. This is a great film.
(***** out of *****)