In 1971, the Marvel Comics character Black Panther had his name changed to Black Leopard in an effort to avoid any affiliations with the Black Panther Movement, which was gaining momentum at the time. I remember reading that a few years ago when I was curious as to which came first. The switch was poorly received and was quickly reversed and forgotten, but the thought of the 2018 incarnation of Black Panther doing something as drastic as a name change out of fear of repercussions made me laugh out loud as I left the theater. Daredevil is often called the “Man Without Fear” in the comics; that moniker now belongs to director Ryan Coogler and his team after the daring and impactful Black Panther.
There’s been a pretty standard formula to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that’s not a knock on them as they’ve now made 18 films that range from solidly entertaining to genre smashing classics. With the exception of Martin Freeman’s returning character, there’s barely any association with Black Panther and its 17 MCU predecessors. That’s a bold decision, but it’s also a necessary one as this deserves to be viewed as a standalone vision that just happens to be a part of something larger. We were briefly introduced to the cinematic Black Panther character in Captain America: Civil War and the film picks up immediately following the events of Civil War. It begins with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascending to the throne after the death of his father.
Chadwick Boseman is excellent at balancing the line between ass kicking hero and the leader of a nation. The role was primed for Boseman to make it his own and he successfully does so well enough that his face will forever be associated with the character, much the same way Robert Downey Jr. is with Iron Man. While on the subject of performances, they’re all excellent across the board. I’ll dive into Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger character more later, as for the actor? This man is a STAR. Jordan owns every second he’s on screen in a nuanced performance that might be the best by a villain since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as Joker ten years ago.
Human chameleon Andy Serkis is a ton of fun as iconic Black Panther baddie Ulysses Klaue. Get Out star and current best actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya plays W’Kabi, leader of the Wakanda forces. Kaluuya gets a juicer role than most secondary characters do in Marvel films. Then there’s the women of Wakanda. Lupita Nyong’o is as powerful as she is beautiful and Coogler manages to capture both qualities equally as she shines bright here. Letitia Wright brings about an organic sense of humor to things while being the brains of the operation and T’Challa’s younger sister. It’s a layered role that could have easily felt forced, but there’s a sweetness to Wright that makes Shuri a welcome sight every time she appears. Finally there’s my personal favorite, Danai Gurira as Okoye; she kicks just so much ass! The familiar faces of Angela Bassett and Forrest Whitaker perfectly round out the cast with their veteran presence.
Villains have been a weak spot of the MCU thus far with the exception of Loki, and that changes here with Erik Killmonger. Jordan brings a balance to the role that makes it nearly impossible to be fully against him. This isn’t another case of a power-hungry crazy person wanting to take over the world; his motivations are justified and his goals come from a place of genuine hurt. His knee-jerk reaction of wanting to eradicate those who have wronged him is one of the many tough topics relevant to society in 2018 that are brought to the surface here. We all understand the desire to seek revenge over resolution and not all of us possess the emotional capacity to control those things. Killmonger’s lack of emotional capability is directly related to the way in which he loses his father early on in life. There’s a certain type of anger and hurt that is always just under the surface for people who go through things like that. Not only left to pick up the pieces but doing so without the individual that is supposed to prepare you for those life struggles. Coogler doesn’t shy away from pointing a spotlight at the vicious cycle of prison and death that face many young African American males; the Killmonger character is a physical manifestation of the grief shared by the victims of that cycle. It’s a tall order and Jordan knocks it out of the park. Menacing when he needs to be, and armed with a sense of entitlement that has more than a little merit, Killmonger is more misguided than evil but that does not make him any less dangerous.
The other side of the coin is the celebration of African culture through the people of Wakanda. Wakanda is a fictional country and, like the antagonist of the story, is also a physical manifestation of an ideal. This time the ideal being that Africa could have thrived alongside the rest of the world had it not been for the long history of unwanted foreign influence. I’m still astonished that these were themes at the forefront of an exciting and action-packed Marvel movie.
Another reason this film works so well are the visuals. Black a Panther might be the most beautiful movie I’ve seen on screen since Avatar. From the colorful costumes to absolutely gorgeous nature of Wakanda, everything is a treat for the eyes. There are a few too many explosions in the finale, but the CGI is far better than in some other recent efforts (ahem, Justice League). I assume right about now that Mr. Coogler has the keys to any project he wants in Hollywood and it’s very deserved.
At the end of the day, Black Panther is a comic book movie and it never delves so far into its social themes that it feels like anything less than that. The difference is that in its willingness to tackle social themes head on it ends up feeling more important than just a comic book movie. The cool, sleek action sequences feel right at home in the MCU. The subtle, and not so subtle, commentaries on race in the modern world will plant the type of flag in the comic world that Get Out did in the horror genre. Needless to say, go see this movie quickly.
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