2018, PG-13, 134 min. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 16, 2018
Can it really be a coincidence that Barack Obama chose this week, of all weeks, to unveil his official presidential portrait? Kehinde Wiley has used fine art as a medium to show African-Americans – not simply to paint them, but to depict them on their own cultural terms. In the same week, Ryan Coogler does exactly the same with the modern superhero film with Black Panther. There have been superhero movies with black leads before, but nothing of this scale, or ambition, or with so many African-American creatives involved at every level. The tale of an African leader, T'Challa (Boseman), in an African state (the fictional Wakanda), with only two speaking supporting performances by white actors, is still revolutionary for a major studio. This film represents a moment in American pop culture.
But writer/director Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) is not making a film in isolation. This is part of the massive and ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (18 so far, with two more this year alone, and not counting the X-Men films). Black Panther takes a sidestep from the greater cosmic Infinity Gauntlet saga, and heads into the darker political world established when T'Challa's father, T'Chaka, was assassinated in Captain America: Civil War. The new king returns to Wakanda at a time of change, as the nation he now leads has evaded Western contact or imperial encroachment for centuries; so much so that the ultimate insult is colonizer, a term that T'Challa's sister Shuri (Wright, adding pep to proceedings) spits at returning CIA Agent Everett Ross (Freeman). That's a tricky needle to thread, as Wakanda is built on a lie. It has hidden its true nature as the most technologically advanced nation on the planet behind the mask of a backwards farming nation; now that deception is tested. After all, the world is getting smaller, and the next alien invasion may not target Brooklyn.
Wakanda is, of course, the source of the great MacGuffin that is Vibranium (the perfect distillation of the MCU's heady and seamless blending of magic and science), which gives the Panther both his technological and mythological powers. Some people crave it as a weapon for profiteering (Serkis chewing the scenery and an OTT Afrikaans accent as C-level comic-villain-turned-cinematic-arms-dealer Ulysses Klaw), but far more dangerous are those that seek to change the world. Enter Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Jordan, simmering with a righteous anger), a U.S. Special Forces soldier with a plan and a malevolent connection to Wakanda.
Coogler's script, co-written with American Crime Story producer Joe Robert Cole, does not simply tie into the larger MCU continuity, but to the underlying themes of Marvel films: inheritance, guilt, sacrifice, responsibility, and the true nature of heroism in a seemingly morally gray world. Moreover, it is dense with political allegory, and not just the inherent statements of Afro-futurist fiction. The genre is predicated on the idea of what would have happened in the continent without slavery and colonialism (Killmonger is as enraged by the global legacy of the Middle Passage as he is by his personal vendetta against T'Challa's Panther Tribe), but that's far from the only pot stirred. Much like Tony Stark (arguably the Black Panther's dissolute analog) has blood on his weapons-developing hands, T'Challa is left to question the culpability of Wakanda in letting Africa suffer colonialism unchallenged. Moreover, this is no Panglossian Afro-future: Coogler places limits on the idyll of Wakanda, and sends an inherent jab that all imperialism, no matter its origin, is dangerous.
Boseman carries that moral and emotional weight to reaffirm him as one of Marvel's finest casting choices. T'Challa has often been comicdom's most burdened character, as brilliant as Stark and Reed Richards, but with a grasp of big-picture thinking his peers lack. Boseman portrays him as a statesman who cannot afford to simply punch back in his superhero guise, with a tragic self-doubt that meets its peerless match in Jordan's resolute Killmonger. As T'Challa is to Iron Man, so Killmonger is to Captain America – or rather, he's the kind of brash, merciless killer that The First Avenger pointed out would be a bad idea as a potion-powered killer. His merciless, damaged swagger speaks as much to the abuse of power as Boseman's soulfulness and compassion does to restraint and mercy.
And let's not forget, this is a kickass action movie, from the plains of Wakanda (Victoria, Australia, standing in for the African nation's geographic location in northwestern Kenya) through the back streets of Busan (shot on location in South Korea). Aside from T'Challa's own sinuous combat style, Okoye (Gurira) and the all-female royal guard, the Dora Milaje, make Snoke's Elite Praetorian Guard look like a weak MMA undercard. Plus, two words: war rhinos.
Yes, Black Panther is a moment. But in 20 years' time (or 100 more Marvel films), when this moment has passed, it will still be the kind of resonant, rip-roaring crowd-pleaser to which all smart action films should aspire.
Moisés Chiullán, Feb. 16, 2018
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Black Panther, Ryan Coogler, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba