REVIEW: Black Panther (2018): Marvel Reinvigorates Their Film Slate with a Much Needed Aspirational Hero

blackpanther

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is not a perfect film; but it creates a hero and universe that filmgoers can view as aspirational in the vein of Richard Donner’s Superman.

Creed was one of the best films of 2015. That film’s director, Ryan Coogler, was tasked with helming the 7th sequel to a franchise that had gone from the heights of an Academy Award winning drama to the nadir of a glorified action film vanity vehicle featuring the star’s spouse and son in parts 4 and 5. But Coogler, with no small help from his star, Michael B. Jordan, took the lore and mythology surrounding the Rocky films and reinvigorated Creed to a contender for Best Picture and numerous acting honors. Coogler knew how to frame the history behind the films and make them speak to a new audience and in doing so made Jordan a star by playing a streetwise character you could empathize with.

In many ways, Black Panther is the Creed of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is thick with anti-heroes and superheroes who have lost their way at worst or morally bankrupt at best (i.e. Captain America: Civil War is a good example of this). Black Panther captures the zeitgeist in presenting a hero that is timely with a world that captures the imagination in the same way that Wonder Woman did in 2017.

Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir to the crown of Wakanda, a country in Africa perceived to be among the poorest in the world. In reality, it is one of the most progressive and technologically advanced places in the world, due to being built on a meteorite made of a mystical ore known as Vibranium. It is not only the most dense material in the world, but it can be made into clothing, infused in plants and imbue those who consume it with mystical powers. T’Challa’s tale is one of coming into his own and trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, but also be his own man; one struggling with finding justice for his father and friends and trying to find an honest path for himself as a man.

On the flipside, we are introduced to Michael B. Jordan’s character, Eric Kilmonger. Eric is the other side of the coin of T’Challa; much in the way Magneto is the flipside of Professor Xavier in the X-Men films. While both T’Challa and Eric want to empower their people, they come from different worlds, both literally and figuratively. T’Challa, raised in Wakanda, is taught to hide the existence of his people so they can prosper without the world taking advantage. Eric, growing up in Oakland, has seen his people gun themselves down, oppressed by the state and sees little recourse but violent uprising as a means of empowerment. Its the classic King vs. Malcolm X argument but coached for a new generation. The reason it works so well in this film is because Jordan imbues Eric with an inner life that makes you think maybe he has a point.

On the flipside, while Jordan is the film’s shining star, Boseman doesn’t get as much to work with in terms of characterization and nuance. We get a lot of Black Panther in action and those sequences are great, but as an audience member, you want to see T’Challa engage more with Kilmonger’s argument and show him there might be another way. Instead, you’re left more with the idea that Coogler sides more with Kilmonger in their ideological battle. The world building on display in Black Panther is really something amazing; taking queues from the best of the Marvel Universe like Guardians of the Galaxy. But while Captain America The First Avenger had a similar arc and challenge in establishing its protagonist as the ideological bastion to follow, Black Panther doesn’t quite make Boseman’s T’Challa the heart of the film he needs to be. We see that quality more in his team. Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, as well as Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia serve as the film’s heart and through thread. The relationships T’Challa has with these characters are important in showing T’Challa inspires confidence and Coogler succeeds in making cool role models for the diverse audience this film will draw (especially with Letitia Wright’s comedic science prodigy Shuri).

That said, the plot is a bit predictable and conventional with the depiction of T’Challa’s right hand W’Kabi (a somewhat wasted and underused Daniel Kaluuya) and the writing behind Winston Duke’s M/Baku and his Jabari tribe seem driven more by plot than consistent characterization. That being said, Black Panther is easily the best MCU entry since 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, even if it isn’t the best possible film it could be. Michael B. Jordan delivers the MCU’s best villain since Michael Keaton’s Vulture or Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser in terms of gravitas and screen magnetism. It will be interesting to see if Coogler returns for a future installment in the world of Wakanda, but it would be a welcome stop.

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