A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2018

RANK:  #20


2018, PG-13, 134 mins.


Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa / Black Panther  /  Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger  /  Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia  /  Forest Whitaker as Zuri  /  Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue / Klaw  /  Danai Gurira as Okoye  /  Angela Bassett as Ramonda  /  Sterling K. Brown as N'Jobu  /  Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross  /  Daniel Kaluuya as W'Kabi  /  Florence Kasumba as Ayo  /  Winston Duke as M'Baku / Man-Ape  /  Letitia Wright as Shuri  /  Phylicia Rashād

Directed by Ryan Coogler  /  Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole 







BLACK PANTHER is certainly not the first major Hollywood studio super hero film featuring a black lead character (that honor goes to 1998's BLADE, which also spawned a trilogy and helped usher in the notion that Marvel Comics based silver screen outings could be popular and profitable).  

However, the 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is most certainly the very first comic book inspired film - or film in general, for that matter - that features a black protagonist, is populated by what appears to be a 99% black cast, is written and directed by a black filmmaker (Ryan Coogler), and features a gargantuan budget and awe inspiring scale.  And that's precisely why the film is receiving ample pre-release notice and praise; unquestionably, this is a culturally significant cinematic happening in the making that deserves to be celebrated. 

This brings me, of course, to the most crucial question: Is BLACK PANTHER as good as it is a significant watershed event film for both the industry and the larger and ever expanding MCU as a whole?  For the most part, BLACK PANTHER is a most worthy and unique addition to its cinematic universe in the sense that it explores the notion of heroism via a different lens than previous comic book adaptations, not to mention that it wonderfully and unapologetically embraces and commemorates its hero's rich comic panel history as well as his equally rich ethnic heritage.   That in itself is a noteworthy thing, seeing as it's a direct pushback to a damning and entrenched Hollywood culture of whitewashing films for mainstream consumption.  BLACK PANTHER also feels like a wholly separate entity unto itself that doesn't come off like a pedestrian placeholder film for future MCU entries to come; it's allowed to live and breath on its own terms, unlike, say, the recent SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  Furthermore, Coogler's super hero extravaganza is as thematically dense and thoughtful as it is visually majestic, which is a refreshingly nice dichotomy to witness in an age of style over substance blockbusters. 



That, and Black Panther here is an intriguingly politicized hero in ways that so many other MCU heroes aren't, adding a whole other enthralling layer to the film he occupies.  We were first introduced to T'Challa (the smoothly charismatic Chadwick Boseman) back in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR as he was thrust into choosing sides in the ideological conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and for deeply personal reasons.  Thankfully, BLACK PANTHER is not another needless origin story for the titular character, but rather a re-introduction story that more fully develops the world he resides in and rules over.  We're granted a nifty prologue that gives audiences some much needed context on T'Challa's East African country of Wakanda, which outwardly appears poverty stricken to the rest of the world, but secretly is an unfathomably affluent and technologically advanced civilization, and one that its rulers shield from the world in hopes of its riches not being exploited by the domineering interests of outsiders.  T'Challa - returning to Wakanda and anointed King (after his father was slain in CIVIL WAR) - seems bound and determined to maintain Wakanda's ultra tight isolationist stance.

T'Challa does have multiple comrades in arms that assist him with maintaining law and order in Wakanda, like his Q-like tech-savvy scientist sister, Shuri (Lettitia Wright), his former lover and able bodied warrior, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), and his head of military, Okoye (Danai Gurira).  T'Challa also spends his newfound time as king going after adversaries that threaten the Wakanda way of life, like the lecherous merc Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who's selling Wakandian pilfered Vibranium on the black market to the highest bidder.  While on a mission in South Korea to infiltrate Klaue, T'Challa and company come across CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who reveals a new and dangerous threat to Wakanda in the form of the enigmatic Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who appears in Wakanda to challenge T'Challa for his throne and has, shall we say, a tragic past and deeply rooted motives that make this villain's end game strangely justifiable.  

BLACK PANTHER somewhat fixes the ongoing MCU problem with conjuring up worthy and memorable antagonists, seeing as Killmonger (great name for a baddie) is both a product of a Wakandian blood line and lived a tragic life on the ghettoized American streets that's far removed from the lavishness of Wakanda.  He also represents, like all great movie villains, an icy foil to the hero in the sense that he wants exactly what T'Challa has, but wishes to use it for the polar opposite purposes.  T'Challa doesn't want to have anything to do with society beyond Wakanda's walls, even refusing to share his nation's riches and unfathomably state of the art technology.  This infuriates Killmonger, seeing as he's witnessed first hand how black people in America have been subjugated for years, and largely have been ignored by Wakanda.  As a result, he wants to defeat T'Challa in ritualistic battle to ascend to the Wakanda throne and then use all of the country's resources, in turn, to give them to underprivileged black people the world over so that they can rise up against their oppressors.  Killmonger is indeed a murderous thug, but his rationales are not only logical, but relatable, making him paradoxically sympathetic and dangerous.  I only wished that Jordan (whom previously worked on FRUITVALE STATION with Coogler) added as much performance depth to this villain as he was granted on paper, but Killmonger is nevertheless one of the more intrinsically captivating comic book villains in years. 

BLACK PANTHER is also a rousing success on a visual level.  Coogler - known more for gritty and realistic urban dramas a million miles removed from this - has painstakingly crafted the world of Wakanda from the ground up, making it, in the process, as fully fleshed out and realized as any fictional setting that I've seen grace the screen.  Shot with rich and vibrant colors by Rachel Morrison (the first Oscar nominated female cinematographer ever) that features eyegasmic costume design by Ruth Carter, Wakada here is a world of jaw-dropping wonders as a hidden nation of the future, and one that fully and joyfully cements itself in African culture.  Another pleasure to be had in BLACK PANTHER that coincides with its look is the fact that Coogler doesn't lazily steep this universe as a male dominated one.  The film is populated by fearsomely independent, intelligent, confident, and tough as nails female characters that never once fall into victimized damsel in distress troupes.  Nakia, Shuri, and Okoye all have sturdy story arcs of their own that compliment that larger tale of T'Challa's struggle to stay in power, which further gives BLACK PANTHER a feminist edge to coincide with its empowered racial makeup in front of and behind the camera.   

Now, there's something to be said that Boseman's T'Challa himself is a somewhat sidelined supporting character in his very own film, mostly because of what a collectively strong presence the side players have here.  He doesn't have the cocky arrogance of a Tony Stark, nor the conflicted do-gooder psyche that is entrenched in a Steve Rogers or Peter Parker, but T'Challa's regal facade doesn't invite such characteristics, and Boseman maintains a calmly authoritative presence throughout BLACK PANTHER that serves the film well, even though he's less infectiously vivacious than his female co-stars.  T'Challa's reign as king and his confrontations with Killmonger have forced him to deal with how his wealthy and powerful country has essentially done very little to help those less fortunate in the world.  His self-imposed segregationist stance for Wakanda - built upon by previous monarchs - makes him tackle the notion of what national and cultural pride means, not to mention what being a super hero is really all about.  Is it really heroic to not do the responsible thing and ensure that all black lives everywhere are afforded the same security and hopeful future as those in Wakanda?  Shouldn't real heroes share the wealth?  Very few comic book films have their lead characters deal with their own ideological hypocrisy via being challenged by the villains like this one does.   

BLACK PANTHER does not shy away from comic book inspired action, though, and the film is as replete with epic confrontations and larger than life battles as any MCU film that preceded it.  This leads me to some of my criticisms of the film, especially in the sense that Black Panther seemed to have a tactile weight in his fight scenes in CIVIL WAR, but here he seems to be the mournful product of some garish CGI that makes his standoffs with KIllmonger look more like their belong in a video game (Coogler made one of the most breathlessly sensational sequences of recent memory with his one continuous shot boxing match showcased within CREED, but here he seems to frustratingly shoot too much of the action in tight close-ups that's typified by frenetic editing).  BLACK PANTHER also loses some narrative momentum as the film builds towards its final act, which (a) evolves with fairly numbing predictability and (b) actually adheres to many of the overused genre conventions that it was trying to buck during its opening two-thirds.  Anyone that's seen, for example, the Batman/Bane arc of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES will be able to accurately foretell precisely how BLACK PANTHER will end. 

Am I being too picky?  Maybe.  Then again, I did find more nitpicky issues with the film: I'm not altogether sure how Wakanda was able to become such an improbably rich and advanced culture by not trading or doing business with other countries, let alone not having any type of relationship with other nations altogether (how do they make their money, who do they sell to and buy from, and how have they not gone through an ecosystem shutdown after pilfering all of their own natural resources during their long history of isolationism?).  Maybe I am being too picky, especially seeing as this is a movie about cool looking futuristic cities, magic herbs that can send people to other planes of existence, mechanical armed men, flying cars, armored battle-ready hippos, and a comic book hero with a super suit infused with a fictionalized unbreakable metal alloy (granted, how is it cut to be infused into the suit?).  

Never mind.  

BLACK PANTHER doesn't hit the upper echelon of the best MCU outings, but it comes as close as any as of late and places the franchise back on secure footing after a few questionably iffy entries.  It also doesn't reinvent the wheel as far as hero's journey formulas go.  Yet, the world presented here is so magnificently rendered, not to mention that on top of being inordinately proud of its African heritage, the film's underlining story poses ongoing questions about one black culture that has been fully liberated while ignoring other black cultures that have been denied liberation.  This is what gives BLACK PANTHER such an enthralling heartbeat.  T'Challa has to not only confront who he is as a political leader in the film, but also how he will lead his people to help all of humanity - regardless of skin color - for the greater good moving forward.   

Now that's a real super hero. 

  H O M E