Movie Review: Black Panther
By Matthew Huntley
February 28, 2018
“Black Panther” proves just how much fresh concepts and characters can enliven a not-so-fresh genre. If you take away “Panther”'s progressive ideas and commanding people, you're left with a serviceable yet mostly routine superhero movie, with some qualities even borrowed from franchises like “James Bond” and “Star Wars.” Ideally, “Panther” would have found ways around such familiar formulas and delivered an experience that was truly unique, but nevertheless, the fact it pushes new ground in more important areas makes it easy to forgive. Plus, this being a Marvel superhero movie and all more or less guarantees it will be exciting and entertaining by default—and it is—so it's a keeper no matter how you look at it.
First, the basics (and what you probably already know given the ubiquity of the Marvel Comics Universe). The present-day story of “Black Panther” takes place not long after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” during which King T'Chaka (John Kani), of the fictional African country Wakanda, was killed at a conference in Vienna. His son, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), vowed revenge on his father's killer by utilizing the powers of his alter ego, the Black Panther, and thus we were first introduced to this film's titular character.
Wakanda, interestingly, actually plays a more significant role than most superheros' places of origin. We learn in the film's opening narration the country became enriched hundreds of years ago when a meteorite containing the “strongest metal in the world,” vibranium, landed on it and gave its people one of Earth's most valuable resources. It also triggered a war among the nation's five separate tribes, all of whom vied for control of it.
When the Panther God instructed a lone warrior to ingest an herb containing vibranium, he acquired superhuman abilities, becoming the first Black Panther and uniting all but one of Wakanda's tribes. *Important note: the King of Wakanda and the Black Panther aren't necessarily one in the same—a king's position can always be challenged in a duel—although now that King T'Chaka has fallen, the reigns automatically go to T'Challa, who just happens to be the Black Panther, who dons a black and purple vibranium-powered suit, which, among other things, absorbs kinetic energy until its wearer releases it. The suit also makes him stronger, faster, more agile and impervious to “primitive” weapons like guns.
If you've seen “Civil War,” then you've already seen Black Panther in action—he jumps, swings, flips, engages in hand-to-hand combat, uses his claws to hang onto cars during high-speed chases, etc. You know, he's a superhero, not terribly unlike, say, Spider-Man or several others from Marvel's vast arsenal of exceptional human beings who possess special powers and abilities.
What sets Black Panther apart from his brethren, though, and indeed what sets the whole film apart, are the non-superhero elements, specifically its social commentaries. Following the death of this father, T'Challa returns to Wakanda, which we learn merely poses as a third-world country for security purposes and protects itself with a force field that makes it look like there's nothing on the ground except farmland. But underneath is a highly advanced, self-sustaining “techno-utopia” (not my word) with an infrastructure and urban system that runs so smoothly it makes cities like Tokyo (the cleanest, most efficient city I've ever visited) seem amateurish.
Wakanda may be a wonder to behold, but one of the driving themes in the film is the idea of advanced nations and people being proactive about helping others, and in the case of Wakanda, T'Challa questions whether it's morally right that his country, with all its innovations, continues to isolate itself instead of working to bring the rest of world up to its level. He struggles with this decision as well a familial conflict when his close advisor, Zuri (Forest Whitaker), reveals an unnerving secret about T'Challa's father's past, which is connected to the motivations of Panther's new nemesis, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). How T'Challa and Killmonger exactly relate, I'll not reveal, but the screenplay by director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole doesn't undermine the complicated choices T'Challa must now make as king. It takes these seriously and examines them without seeming like it's in a rush just to get to the action sequences, of which there are plenty, including death-defying car chases; a climactic, all-hands-on-deck battle between two opposing armies; and a final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger.
“Panther”'s standard-issue characteristics are all well and good, and they make for a fun time at the movies, but like I mentioned, most of its success, and probably why it's making such a well-deserved splash at the box-office and in pop culture, comes from it broader social statements, with it's most important being the depiction of Africans as heroes. The film is self-conscious about turning the ugly perceptions and stereotypes associated with black people upside down and even has fun with them. For instance, as most mainstream media represent African nations as nothing more than desolate, arid farm countries, with safari animals roaming about and nomadic tribes carrying spears, “Black Panther” shows them as the opposite. Wakanda actually has lush, verdant landscapes and towering skyscrapers, and it's populated with highly intelligent, sophisticated citizens. But the film is careful not to draw too much attention to these qualities just to underline its point that Africans are people too. It takes the classy approach and simply shows them as smart and highly capable and we accept it.
About the tribespeople carrying spears, yes, such individuals exist in the film, but they're embodied by confident, strong women, which is another way “Black Panther” goes against the grain. Lupita Nyongo'o plays Nakia, T'Challa's ex-lover and former member of Wakanda's special forces regiment known as Dora Milaje. She left her unit because she believes she's found a higher calling as an undercover agent, but she's still willing to join the fight against Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black market arms dealer and gangster who teams up with Killmonger to steal an artifact made of vibranium. She teams up with T'Challa's most loyal bodyguard, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, who's just as fierce and intense here as she is on TV's “The Walking Dead.”
Yet another memorable female character is T'Challa's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a brilliant engineer and technology designer who customizes all of Black Panther's fancy suits and weapons using vibranium. Granted, she's not too far removed from James Bond's M, but it was refreshing to see such a role inhabited by a young, African woman, and she lends the film a lot of its warm and humor. Martin Freeman is also droll as FBI agent Everett Ross, who's on his own mission to thwart Klaue and becomes an unexpected ally to the Wakandans. He eventually uses his skills as a former pilot to take down enemy fighter planes in a way that feels too reminiscent of “Star Wars,” but in any case, it gets the job done.
“Black Panther” is slick and entertaining for all the usual superhero/action movie reasons, and it will no doubt appease fans of the genre seeking yet another Marvel Comics Universe adventure that continues the studio's winning streak of delivering easily digestible yet wonderfully entertaining content. But where the film really shines is in its effort to depict black people in a positive light, particularly as cultured, courageous and empathetic heroes. The still-budding Coogler is on a role of his own after helming the devastating “Fruitvale Station” and the better-than-expected “Creed.” Like those films, “Panther” has been made with care, intelligence and emotion, and I've a feeling that, at least for the foreseeable future, it will be viewed as the first mainstream superhero movie that started changing our perception about the types of people superheroes can be. That's an admirable quality for any movie to have.