Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o
It's hard to believe that nearly ten years have passed since the release of Iron Man, which marked the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but here we are. After making his debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa, aka the Black Panther, has finally gotten a film of his own, the eighteenth entry in the MCU - let that sink in for a moment - that proves, once again, that this massive, groundbreaking franchise is far from running out of steam after all these years.
At this point, it's almost impossible to not be aware of the hype that has surrounded this movie, especially in recent months as its arrival has drawn closer. Compared to last year's releases - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok - Black Panther is facing a wave of expectations as something more than just another high note in the MCU; it's a cultural event, and an important one to be celebrated at that. And though the Ryan Coogler-directed film makes some missteps, which I'll get into in a bit, I personally couldn't be happier to say that Black Panther is a winner, through and through, setting up a solo franchise with a massive, tantalizing future ahead of it that never sacrifices making itself a solid piece of entertainment in the process of doing so.
Black Panther isn't a film about chasing Infinity Stones. It's not a film about fighting aliens and robots and saving the world. It's not a film where anyone cares about what the Avengers are up to. This is a film about a boy becoming a man, a man becoming a king, and a king finding not just who he wants to become but his place, and the place of his own people, in a much larger world. It's a tale of family, of the line between holding dear to tradition or letting go to embrace a future, and of sins of the past coming home to roost. It's a film that picks up only a week after the events of Civil War to keep putting T'Challa through the fire so that he can become who he is destined to be, both as a leader of Wakanda and as a permanent fixture in the world he's now irrevocably a part of it.
As you'll remember from Civil War, T'Challa's father King T'Chaka (John Kani) was killed early in the film, his death thrusting upon T'Challa a mountain of responsibility that only pushed him down a path of vengeance, but by the end of it, he learned to not let that narrow-minded focus consume him, a lesson that colors in his actions throughout Black Panther. His ascendancy to the throne is not a straight path, however, as he's challenged by forces internal and external, and the meat of the film's narrative is devoted to T'Challa fighting for and proving both to himself and to the people of Wakanda that he truly deserves to be their king.
And to that end, and to no one's surprise, Chadwick Boseman continues to prove to everyone why he deserves to be T'Challa, the actor bringing the same calm and regal - but not devoid of charm - demeanor that made him such a scene-stealer in Civil War to this film, solidifying the character as a marquee character more than worthy of holding up the MCU long after original pillars like Iron Man and Captain America have retired. He's the anchor of the film, though he's far from being the only bright spot in the cast.
In fact, there's not really any weak links in the cast at all. Letitia Wright's Shuri, T'Challa's little sister, steals the film right out from under her brother as much as he stole the film out from under everyone else in Civil War, as does Danai Gurira's Okoye, the actress given the chance to shine so incredibly bright here in a way that her long-term role as Michonne on The Walking Dead hasn't capitalized on in what feels like years. And that's not even the tip of the iceberg, as the rest of the cast delivers as well, including Lupita Nyong'o, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya, and Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, both men reprising their respective roles from Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
And, of course, I'd be remiss not to mention Michael B. Jordan as Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, a character who essentially stands as a mirror image of T'Challa had T'Challa embraced his lust for vengeance in Civil War rather than reject it. Jordan puts in some solid work here in layering his broken, enraged villain as someone who has had his heart ripped from him only to be left rudderless and alone in an ocean with no direction. His ideology clashes with T'Challa's in a major way by film's end, obviously, but the film goes to surprising lengths to challenge the audience (and T'Challa) to sympathize with the character to the point of understanding his motivations even if his methods are objectively "wrong," something that does force the new king to look inward and realize once and for all that things do really need to change.
If anything, one of my only complaints about the film is that he himself is underutilized. For the first half of the film, Killmonger is lurking about, partnered with Andy Serkis' Ulysses Klaue, and it isn't until the second half that he kicks things into gear for himself and revelations about who he is come to light, but by then the narrative begins to rush towards its climax and his character gets a bit lost along the way for the sake of getting to the inevitable third act final conflict. And it's not just Killmonger that suffers from this uptick in pacing, either; as things begin to hit the fan, the character work is reeled back in for the sake of physical conflict, the most glaring example (to me) being the arc of Daniel Kaluuya's W'Kabi, T'Challa's best friend, who never gets any sort of closure within the film, something that - without going into spoiler territory - is disappointing considering his role in the story and importance to more than just T'Challa.
In terms of action, this third act certainly delivers, but I would've been willing to sacrifice some of it (or at least sit through an extended running time) for the sake of spending more time with these characters. That's not to say the action in the film as a whole is boring - a fight that moves into the streets of South Korea is electric, for instance, as are two brutal fights when T'Challa is challenged for the throne - but I feel that Black Panther could've benefitted from expanding upon Wakanda itself a bit more. The costuming and set design is incredible, no doubt about it, but a bit more time could've been devoted to exploring the culture of the nation to flesh itself out as a real character unto itself. More time is spent viewing Wakanda from a royal perspective than giving us a window into the day-to-day life that thrives in this world, and hopefully future films can expand more upon it, as the country's blend of technology and spirituality is a fascinating concept that Black Panther only scratches the surface of.
As always, I also couldn't start wrapping this up without acknowledging the film's score, which is delivered by Ludwig Göransson and complimented by a soundtrack overseen by Kendrick Lamar. Göransson's score plays a massive part in breathing life into Wakanda, his work here sounding nothing like anything the MCU has put out yet, while Lamar's contributions give an indelible extra oomph to the whole affair that works hand-in-hand with the film's themes of tradition and progress and of cultures coming together. Like Killmonger bringing with him the experiences of the harsh world he's lived in and changing Wakanda forever, Lamar's work slowly pervades the film like a wave of progress emphasizing T'Challa's willingness to step out from the shadows and into the world's spotlight. It's solid work from both men, and I'll be obsessed with the track "All the Stars," which plays over the end credits, for the foreseeable future.
Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the film with Joe Robert Cole, MCU mastermind Kevin Feige, this stellar cast, and everyone involved in bringing this film to life should be proud of what they've done. It's not an easy task following 17 films full of characters and moments people have fallen in love with over the course of a decade, especially when the massive event film that is Avengers: Infinity War looms on the horizon, but Black Panther pulls it off. It's got its faults when it comes to pacing, something that domino effects into shortchanging the character work late in the film, similar to some of the other "origin" films in the franchise, like Doctor Strange, but it's an issue that's so easy to overlook when the characters are this good, the themes are so strong, and the film itself feels just as fresh, unique, and driven by a unique creative vision like Guardians of the Galaxy did in 2014 or Thor: Ragnarok did last November. And while we won't have to wait long to see many of these characters again - they'll be returning in Infinity War this May, after all - it's hard not to be excited to see where this solo franchise goes next in the years to come.
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