Black Panther review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters its tenth year, there’s an obvious questioning if superhero films are growing stale or too formulaic. The reason that the MCU continues to lead the pack is that they pursue new and fresher avenues of comic book films, dabbling in everything from space operas to heist pictures. On this basis, Black Panther stands out as one of their greatest, taking the character into realms of African royalty, Afrofuturism, and colonialism. It’s far more than just another superhero flick with a black glaze.
T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) makes for a unique and flawed hero. After the events of Captain America: Civil War, he must now ascend to the role of king of his utopia of Wakanda. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is just a lesser African country, but hidden behind a holographic curtain exists a thriving city, bound by old customs and designed with futuristic tech. They have spaceships and energy weapons but also a tradition of dueling for the throne and partaking in paranormal plants for spiritual visions. T’challa has a lot to live up to with his people, namely deciding what place they should take on the international stage. Should they remain hidden or share their tech with the world?
For the Wakandan outsider Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the answer is clear on his path for revenge. He knows the true history of Wakanda’s royalty and it’s a messy one of murder and betrayal. Having grown up on the mean streets, Erik bitterly asks where Wakanda was while the rest of the world was suffering. It’s a fair point and one that T’challa takes under serious consideration. It’s only when Erik throws on the villain costume of Killmonger and wants to use that future tech to enslave the world that T’challa starts fighting back. Even if his crusade eventually leads to a big battle of energy weapons and armored rhinos, he’s by far the most sympathetic and interesting villain of Marvel’s movies. Erik’s arc is so engaging that it’s no surprise the simpler villain of the weapons dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis) makes an early exit.
Let’s also not forget T’challa’s female army led by the likes of his current lover Okoye (Danai Gurira) and former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). They are more than capable of holding their own in a fight and get in just as many witty jabs, as well as a great use of a weave during a fight. Also aiding in the battles is technology expert Shuri (Letitia Wright), a wiz with Vibranium and eager to partner with the following CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Though Ross can’t do much with lack of Vibranium weapons and little more than regulations to keep the bad guys in line, he has flight experience, giving him something to do when the big battle is underway. That being said, he will be brought down a peg when addressing Wakandan warriors, not realizing he’s talking to men that could eat him for breakfast (if they weren’t vegetarians, of course).
The film was directed by Ryan Coogler, having come a long way from the more intimate films of Fruitvale Station and Creed. His direction presents a number of different genres, from classic tales of feuding kingdoms to sci-fi plotting of that pesky Vibranium tech to James Bond style action sequences across Korea. His style is striking, designing Wakanda as an otherworldly fusion of artistic African design and slick high-tech functionality; a highlight is the Vibranium lab that looks like a cross between an art installation and an open office. He also doesn’t shy away from the more uncomfortable aspects, from Erik’s bitterness toward colonialism to T’challa’s political questioning of desires that are not fully sound. Too deep for a superhero film? Not with Coogler’s honesty and bluntness to pack a bigger punch.
Black Panther is the type of superhero film that Marvel should be pursuing as it crosses a decade of movies and wants to continue on for another. It challenges, creates, and restructures the perceptions of culture, lineage, and politics with an invigorating degree of excitement, yet still makes time for a rousing fist-fight of clashing Vibranium armor. There is so much offered outside of just being Marvel’s first black-led superhero film, adding more than color to the cinematic franchise and being more than just a bridge film for Avengers: Infinity War.