Movie Review: Fierce and Profound Black Panther Raises the Bar for SuperheroesFeb 16, 2018
All Photos Courtesy: Marvel Studios
I've said it before, but I don't mind saying it again: even at my advanced stage in life (yep, I'm OLD!) I am still an unashamed comic book geek. I grew up in the 60's and 70's with all of the best Marvel and DC had to offer. While Spider-man was the superhero I related to most I loved all of those glorious color-paneled tales, reading and re-reading stacks of comics even into my college years. So, while there are some who are growing tired of the intense focus on comic book movies and the impact these big-budget titans might be having on the making of "smaller" films, I continue to enjoy nearly everything about these times.
"Black Panther" brings a host of things to enjoy. Let's get this out of the way: believe the hype about this movie. It's not perfect, but it's as close to a flawless comic book movie as you'll ever see. The strength of "Black Panther" rests on the overall vision of director Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station," "Creed"). In various interviews, Coogler has talked about his love for comic books as a child growing up in Oakland. He discovered the Black Panther story at an early age and even as an adult he clearly understands the relationship between the myth-making of comic book superheroes and current culture. That respect for myth-making led the 31-year-old Coogler to spend time in Africa trying to answer the question, "What does it mean to be African?"
The answer he came up with permeates "Black Panther," making it more than just an origin story for T'Challa/The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the revelation of the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda. Coogler uses the movie to address essential issues of race and responsibility. Wakanda is Africa as it might have been if it escaped the impact of colonialism.
Remember Captain America's vibranium shield? Vibranium is the most valuable mineral on earth, and Wakanda is the only place on earth that has it, a fact that only a handful of people know. Not only do they have it, they have a mountain of it, and they've used it to develop technology that would embarrass even Tony Stark. The rulers of Wakanda have chosen to hide their technology to protect their people from the inevitable invasion of those who would swarm in to mine the precious vibranium.
That ongoing decision of protectionism over using their technology to help others in need is what launches the conflict between T'Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). T'Challa is stepping into the role of king after the death of his father (see "Captain America: Civil War") with its history of keeping the nation secret. Killmonger is determined to take control of Wakanda, and it's technology so that he can unleash it on every oppressive regime, government, and individual who have treated blacks unjustly. In short, Killmonger wants to ignite a global revolution while T'Challa is torn between helping others and protecting his nation.
That conflict alone sets "Black Panther" apart from nearly every other superhero movie where the villain wants merely to conquer or destroy the earth. It's not simply good-vs-evil. Killmonger has some valid points in this argument. Coogler embraces the complicated issues that T'Challa is forced to wrestle with and in the process scores some perfectly-placed shots on some of the hot-button issues of the day: racism, immigration, protectionism, and terrorism.
Then there are the women of "Black Panther." This is the only comic book movie I've ever seen where not a single woman is a "princess in need of rescue." Every single female character has a unique strength that is critical to the story. Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is more than just T'Challa's love interest; she is also a spy who spends her time outside the safety of Wakanda's borders rescuing oppressed African citizens from their cruel military rulers. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T'Challa's younger sister, a technical genius who chafes under some of Wakanda's traditions. General Okoye (Danai Gurira) is the leader of Wakanda's all-female royal guard, a fierce fighter, and leader who even Wonder Woman and the Amazons would think twice about challenging.
In truth, while T'Challa is the hero of the movie it is these women who rescue him and enable him to fulfill a greater destiny that he initially imagined.
But it is Michael B. Jordan who steals the show as Killmonger. Comic book villains are notoriously one-dimensional. Not so in this case. Jordan is unquestionably cruel and obsessed as the villain, but the story of how he reached this place in his life is filled with tragedy and pain. Jordan manages to evoke understanding for his unrepentant chokehold on a plan to "watch the world burn" but unlike Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight," he is not an anarchist nor a lunatic. He is simply a man who has experienced pain at the deepest levels and is determined to deliver the oppressed from a repeat of what he had to live through. Coogler, who also wrote the script along with Joe Robert Cole, understand that the line between hero and villain is often razor-thin. Erik Killmonger could have very easily become a noble Black Panther and not the villain.
"Black Panther" is deserving of all the hype you've been seeing and will find a place among the best superhero/comic book movies ever made.