BLACK PANTHER Review: 9 out of 10 (King of all Marvel)
BLACK PANTHER is the latest chapter in the Marvel saga and yet stands alone as something unique to its peers. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler from a screenplay by him and Joe Robert Cole, and stars Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa / Black Panther, alongside a huge cast including Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis. It really is something to behold in terms of African American representation in a story that isn't exploitive or primitive. But besides that achievement, it is really just a great film.
Notice I didn't say superhero movie.
That is BLACK PANTHER's greatest achievement. It isn't really a superhero film. It is a story of fathers and sons; of family and legacy; about loss and life and leadership. But the best theme of the film is an overwhelming sense of hope.
T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the eldest son of the king of the nation of Wakanda. When his father is killed (in an earlier terrorist attack from another MCU film) he is set to be king. Although most of the world sees Wakanda as a third world country, it has its own secrets as a nation. After a vibranium meteorite hit the region centuries before, the land sits on a giant mine of the most powerful metal known to man. Vibranium also affects the plant life (growing mutagens that offer superhuman abilities) and helps to shape their technology that is generations ahead of the rest of the world. However, for years the Wakandans and their king have kept themselves isolated and their secrets of the power of vibranium safe. T'Challa rules alongside his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) who helps to design Wakandan tech, Okoye (Danai Gurira) who is head of an all female bodyguard force, and his former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) who works as a global spy for Wakanda. The idea that there are so many strong black women in the film is not to be minimized here. But outside of racial lines, they are well drawn characters with depth, drive, and emotion. T'Challa's Black Panther powers come from the mutagen herbs grown in Wakanda but also are in his high tech body armor created with vibranium technology. But when T'Challa takes the throne he discovers some dark truths about his nation's past, some family secrets, and those who want to overthrow his kingdom--specifically Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who is an outsider to the nation, but with his own secrets. T'Challa wrestles with his strong moral and ethical code as he attempts to battle the demons of his nation's past while becoming the strong leader that Wakanda needs.
The film offers a long but necessary exposition that introduces Wakanda, its characters, culture, and mythos. A beautiful Afrofuture world, Wakanda is an idealized state with its own heroes and heroines. They are not naive or sheltered from the world, but they all possess an innate sense of hopefulness that is infectious throughout the film. BLACK PANTHER echoes THE LION KING with its kingdom usurpers, circle of life high minded ideals, and a son chasing his father's legacy. T'Challa is instantly the best of the Marvel Universe--a measured man who carries responsibility and cares deeply for his people. And with a rich backdrop and some great performances, the superhero aspect is hardly needed...and rarely accentuated. And that is a very good thing here. It also isn't overly quippy and cynical like most Marvel films...a welcome respite that matches the film's more serious tone and optimism.
There are some weaker points--including a tired deus ex machina trope of someone who refuses to help but then arrives *just when they are needed.* And for all the advancements that Wankanda seems to have in politics, technology, and society, they still run their elections as colorful pageant version of Mortal Kombat. Seems an odd holdover from their tribal roots with so many other advancements. But who knows, maybe the new king can offer the nation of Wakanda a better path to selecting its leaders. (Just not the electoral college, OK T'Challa?)
BLACK PANTHER is a hopeful and beautiful film filled with strong characters and led by T'Challa who might be the best leader of the MCU. Cap and Tony need to sign up for a leadership boot camp in Wakanda ASAP. Long live the King.