A film that speaks socially, narratively, and visually.
A superhero film ought to make us feel incredible. Though it should also tug at our heartstrings and leave us dreading disaster, it is not meant to be a pure social commentary. Some may want “Black Panther” to have a more significant message about current politics than what it offers (or not have one at all), but these are excessive expectations of a film that simply aims to be entertaining. “Black Panther” succeeds at that: It’s light on its commentary, confident in its performance, and is probably the first spectacular action movie of the year.
Comic book fans, rejoice; “Black Panther” introduces its titular hero with tributes to his original comic book origins, without confusing uninitiated audiences. Eons ago, a Vibranium-imbued meteorite crash landed in Africa. Five warring tribes competed for the metal until one warrior consumed a heart-shaped herb, touched by its properties. He gained superhuman abilities and became the first Black Panther, ruler of the five tribes and new nation of Wakanda. Under his rule, this kingdom thrived as a technological marvel centuries ahead of its time, but its people feared that the outside world would sack its resources and wealth. Wakanda retreated into isolation, posing as a simple independent agricultural state while neither accepting nor offering international aid. (Notice any modern parallels?)
Following the events of “Civil War,” the mantle of the Black Panther passed to King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who still grieves his father’s death. Boseman is impressive as a solemn, dutiful monarch. He is strongly loyal to his father and to his country’s traditions, wishing to uphold their principles and to preserve Wakanda’s way of life. Leading a country is difficult, however, no matter what virtues or superhuman strength T’Challa has. Defending the throne from challengers in brutal ritual combat is no easier than keeping personal promises to friends and family. At times, he makes consequential decisions, both great and small, that dictate the future of Wakanda. Boseman’s dedication to the part, complete with a genuine African accent, is laudable.
Fortunately, he is backed by an equally strong female cast, including his playful prodigy sister Shuri (Letita Wright) and his loving ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). They provide him with the gadgets, the muscle, and the emotional support that he needs. Each actress brings her own powerful attitude to the table, on par with Boseman’s cool demeanor. Shuri establishes herself as the Black Panther’s toolmaker, trolling her brother with a kinetically-charged supersuit that sends attackers sprawling. In another, General Okoye (Danai Gurira) swears her fealty to the throne of Wakanda, “No matter who sits upon it.” The Panther’s heroic entourage must be opposed by menacing villains, and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) answer fiercely. Serkis’ dangerously jovial air is hilarious, but Jordan is perhaps Marvel’s most complex and compelling antagonist yet. He vents his animosity and frustration toward racial oppression, his thoughts swirling into a fanatical, yet relatable, revolutionary ideology. The contemporary metaphor is striking and speaks volumes for society today.
Speaking of politics, it is again unreasonable to watch “Black Panther” through a purely partisan lens. It is, at its core, a touching message about communal unity and collaboration. This film has premiered at a time when refugees, statesmen, blacks, whites, haves, and have-nots are all uncertain of the future and suspicious of one another. A comforting cue to come together and solve society’s ills is perhaps what is needed now more than ever. Still, why shouldn’t we have a little ass-kicking and visual spectacle on the side? From Wakanda’s majestic and imaginative metropolitan skyline to the neon-glow of Busan’s urban districts, there’s always something that catches attention. Brawls are jaw-dropping too: When do beautifully-choreographed tussles, flipping cars, and the breathtaking acrobatics of the Black Panther get old? Never.
“Black Panther” triumphs where previous solo-focused Marvel films have stumbled. It touches human emotions more deeply than others, while giving appropriate attention to today’s social climate. Such a narrative says more than any haphazard collage of computer-generated imaging and hamtastic dialogue could. Marvel and Disney should pay close attention to the enormous praise that this film receives: It will serve their formula for future titles well.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Release Date: February 16th, 2018
Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios