“I never freeze.”
–Okoye and T’Challa
“Black Panther,” the latest brick in the Marvel Cinematic Universe monolith, follows T’Challa shortly after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” as he struggles to adapt to his new role as King of Wakanda. The already-complicated political dilemmas of ruling a nation are compounded by his additional role of Black Panther; his slow-burning relationship with War Dog/Wakandan spy Nakia; a world that hungers for vibranium–the source of Wakanda’s wealth and technology; and a man with an axe to grind who intends to use Wakanda as a whetstone.
While Coogler delivers plenty of action in the film–there are so many fight scenes, Wakanda’s second major resource must be Bactine–the characters are where the movie shines. All the people in the world of “Black Panther” feel real and dimensional and capable of having opposing views while still treating each other with respect. It’s a bizarre thing to say about a superhero movie, but I wish the action had been cut back a little so we could have spent more time building up the various interpersonal relationships.
Ironically, the supporting characters are so strong, Black Panther himself ends up being the least interesting one in the film. While Chadwick Boseman does a nice job of portraying the smart and decent T’Challa, he comes off a little bland compared to the dynamic Women of Wakanda.
From the coolly intimidating Okoye (Danai Gurira,) head of the Dora Milaje all-female fighting force, to the brave and empathetic Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), to the brilliant scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright who is pitch-perfect as the sister to whom T’Challa is both King and dorky older brother,) to the regal Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett,) it is in many ways the strong, independent women who drive the movie and embody the best of Wakanda.
Wakanda itself is a main character in the movie–beautiful and multifaceted, it is built up as a utopia of sorts, with equal parts environmental harmony and supernaturally advanced technology. Founded on the vibranium that landed there in a meteorite long ago, Wakanda enjoys a lifestyle rich with culture and tradition, supported by all the advanced science and medicine an enlightened society freed from the shackles of colonization or the paranoia of war might develop.
It is Wakanda’s good fortune that brings about one of the main conflicts of the film: Does Wakanda have a right to keep all of its resources to itself, knowing how many suffer throughout the world they might help? Or does Wakanda’s responsibility to keep its own people safe and preserve the purity of their lifestyle take precedent? The three main men of the film, T’Challa, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya,) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) all have different visions of where the future of Wakanda lies. Poignantly, all three have suffered similar tragedies, pointing out again that heroism or villainy lies not so much in what life hands you, but in your response to it.
Ultimately, Coogler has managed to make “Black Panther” a fun ride with a meaningful core. It’s the superhero movie that feels the least like a superhero movie, which is a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s in danger of getting a little played out recently. The characters seem more realized and the issues more topically relevant than most movies out there, which is a big accomplishment in a film where drinking a flower gives you superpowers.
Because of the rarity of a superhero film written and cast with a predominately black viewpoint, it is difficult to discuss “Black Panther” without mentioning the significance of race in film. I am not a black person, and consequently it seems presumptuous to think that I could adequately express what it might signify for one to see a movie like “Black Panther.” I am Japanese-American however, and I can tell you definitively what it would mean to me to see a tentpole blockbuster like this with a largely Japanese cast including even one empowered woman who doesn’t either die in the first ten minutes of the film or spend the whole storyline helping/pining over a hero who never thinks of her as more than a swell kid: Quite a bit.
“Black Panther” is presented by Marvel Studios. Rated PG-13, it stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, with Angela Bassett, with Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis.
*Always stay to the end of the credits.
Directed by Ryan Coogler and produced by Kevin Feige. The Executive Producers are Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Nate Moore, Jeffrey Chernov, and Stan Lee. Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.
The film enters general release on February 16, 2017.
** With Infinity War coming down the pike, Shuri probably hasn’t healed her last broken white boy.