Anthony's Film Review—'Black Panther' (2018)
This Marvel superhero movie is a must-see flick for its impressive character and setting development...
There are a lot of movies from Marvel Studios that depict Marvel Comics superheroes and do so within the context of a single fictional universe. I would say that there are so many that it's easy for the non-Marvel fan to lose count. Also, someone who isn't a die-hard Marvel zealot may not be interested in seeing all of the Marvel movies because they may seem formulaic. After all, there are only so many movies you can make that feature sci-fi superhero action before the audience starts to get bored with the idea. That's why it's important to be original and creative every now and then to keep a series fresh. For example, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are Marvel movies that have sci-fi action, but are also unique in their humor and music, enough to be additionally classified as sci-fi comedies.
Here's another Marvel superhero movie that stands out in originality: Black Panther. What makes this one so special is how it combines all of the sci-fi Marvel elements with traditional African culture. The film also goes into more character depth than I would expect from a Marvel movie. In fact, I will go as far as to say that the cultural and character aspects of Black Panther make up the core of the film and the sci-fi stuff is secondary. What do I mean by this? Well, think of it this way. Many superhero stories involve a character who has a superhero persona and a human identity to fit in with society. With several of those stories, the audience might be more inclined to see the superhero in action and less inclined to see the same character go through life with a human identity. Black Panther, in my opinion, is notably different by focusing on the human side of the main character and presenting the superhero identity as really nothing more than a high-tech suit.
Let me first talk about the Marvel brand of sci-fi as it appears in Black Panther. The movie presents a great introduction about the origin of the Black Panther. A chunk of vibranium, a powerful extraterrestrial metal, crashes onto Earth in the fictional African country of Wakanda. The metal's properties enable Wakandan tribes to develop technology that is vastly superior to that seen across the rest of the world. However, because of fear about the negative consequences of the world getting its hands on vibranium, the advanced nation of Wakanda is concealed, making the world see Wakanda as a third-world African country like any other, and can only be accessed through a special portal. As for Wakandan leadership, vibranium allows the king to become the Black Panther, possessing amazing physical powers like superhuman strength and agility. Thanks to vibranium, Wakanda has been ruled by a series of Black Panthers over many centuries.
The action in this movie is exactly what you would expect from a Marvel superhero action movie, namely exciting action scenes with great special effects. It's also worth noting that the amount of action in this movie is, to me, the right amount. It avoids having too many action scenes just for the sake of making sure the movie is an action movie. At the same time, it manages to avoid having too little action and not being qualified as an action movie. I really appreciated how every single action scene in this movie stems from the plot. This is a great example of how action is part of the story, not a momentary deviation from it. That's really all I'm going to say about the familiar Marvel flavor of action in Black Panther.
What I really want to talk about is how it goes beyond the core Marvel formula. Early on, I didn't view Black Panther as a superhero movie, but rather a drama of African culture (even though Wakanda is fictional). Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa, a Wakandan who is next in line to be the Black Panther after his father, the most recent Black Panther, had died. T'Challa undergoes a few rituals to become king. First, he is challenged by a tribesman to a fight that will determine who becomes the next king. Then, T'Challa is given the opportunity to communicate spiritually with his father. All of it plays out like a beautiful cultural drama, even if some sci-fi elements are still visible to us.
T'Challa's transition to power occurs as a threat looms over the Wakandans. A band of big-time crooks, including an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) and a devious American named Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), have gotten hold of some vibranium and plan to sell it to anyone in need of powerful weapons. Yes, this is a rather typical plot premise for a lot of action movies, but it still leads to exploration of some interesting questions. For instance, should Wakanda keep its technology a secret or use it for the greater good across the world? Is there anything wrong with the oppressed being given an opportunity to fight back against their oppressors? And when it comes to resolving serious conflicts by fighting versus by doing so pacifically, where should one draw the line?
I mentioned a few cast members already, but they are far from the most important ones. There are a lot of other great actors and actresses in this movie, including Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett as various high-profile Wakandans, plus Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett Ross. It's fun to see them all in action, whether it's Ross working alongside the Wakandans or the Wakandans handling a crisis that threatens to split their nation apart. Again, the real pleasure of Black Panther is observing an African culture blending technology and tradition. Another great example of this: members of the Wakandan guard who fight viciously with vibranium spears. They are just as cool to watch in action as T'Challa the Black Panther.
Black Panther was directed by Ryan Coogler, who is also credited as one of the film's writers. Coogler previously wrote and directed Fruitvale Station, a drama film that stars Michael B. Jordan and was filmed in and around Coogler's hometown of Oakland, California. It's really no coincidence that Black Panther also features Michael B. Jordan and parts of the movie take place in Oakland. Theoretically, an African-American neighborhood of any major US city could be used in this movie, but with Coogler at the helm, it's hard to imagine not featuring a place of close personal connection. (Interestingly, the real-life Black Panther Party, an African-American revolutionary activist group, was founded in Oakland.) Speaking of personal connection, Black Panther is a film that can appeal to anyone regardless of race, yet to a certain degree, it also speaks to the black community at large. There are certain moments in the movie that briefly serve as commentary about the struggles of African-Americans and the differences in perspective between African people in their native continent and African-Americans. It's another example of melding science-fiction with our real world, to make something that feels imaginative yet real.
With all of this, Black Panther is a great movie that pleases fans of both superhero movies and black cinema. Among Marvel superhero movies, it's one of the best, if not the best. For black cinema, you could say it's a landmark. If you think about it, many African-American films can be categorized by era, like 70s Blaxploitation films (think Shaft and Foxy Brown), 90s hood dramas and comedies (like Boyz N the Hood and Friday), and biopics released after 2010 (including three movies portraying Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall, all starring Chadwick Boseman). Call me crazy, but I won't be surprised if Black Panther marks the beginning of another era of black cinema, one related to action movies or superhero movies. Regardless of what appeals to you more, Black Panther has something for everyone. As great as the action, special effects, story, and characters are, the film's real achievement is going beyond the expected target audience, reaching out to another, and ultimately having a worldwide appeal.
Anthony's Rating: 10/10