February 21, 2018

Black Panther Review

Michael B. Jordan

Marvel’s unprecedented string of satisfying superhero movies is often dismissed as adherence to one successful formula. What this simplistic criticism overlooks is the brilliant risk Marvel Studios has taken when choosing directors to helm these box-office behemoths. The MCU has not attempted to maintain one auteur’s vision throughout its interconnected movies (unless you count Stan Lee). That criticism is not meant to bag on Zack Snyder, who, for all his faults, has done what he was hired to do: create a rival DCEU. The fault is Warner Bros. and DC’s for asking too much of one person, a seemingly careful move that has proven more risky than Marvel giving the keys to its universe to small-timers like James Gunn, Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler. If one person’s vision does not work, maybe the next one’s will.

Coogler’s new addition to the MCU is not just a new city; it is a new country, Wakanda, on a new continent, Africa. The tiny country is a Third World afterthought to the rest of the globe; the reality is Wakanda is the sole source of an alien ore named vibranium that powers enough wild Wakandan inventions to make Tomorrowland look like yesterday. For centuries, Wakanda has kept this secret, along with one about a superpowered protector named Black Panther, whose alter ego happens to be whoever currently rules Wakanda. 

After the untimely death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) via a terrorist attack witnessed in Captain America: Civil War, his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), inherits both his crown and costume. With the help of warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira, better known as Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) and his brilliant little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), whose gadget-building could give Tony Stark a run for his money, T’Challa must survive a coup led by Killmonger (Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan).

Coogler had quite a task set out for him in adapting Black Panther for the big screen. Sure, most comic book bystanders do not know Wakanda from the Savage Land or vibranium from adamantium (the other strongest metal in the Marvel Universe), so Coogler could just wing it à la most of the Batman movies with no one the wiser (which would probably have happened had the ’90s Wesley Snipes-starring Black Panther ever happened). 

But rather than forcing audiences to sit through another superhero origin story, Coogler brilliantly summarizes the history of Wakanda in a gorgeously animated opening sequence before recounting Black Panther: Year One (yes, that is a Batman reference). Coogler even gives us a glimpse into what a black James Bond movie might resemble during a fun spy sequence where Black Panther even gets his own Felix Leiter in the form of CIA Agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman).

Coogler’s most impressive feat could have been out-imagining two of the MCU’s most vividly unique entries, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. From the previously mentioned animation to the streets and hybrid skyscrapers of Wakanda to the vibranium mines beneath those rolling hills, Black Panther stands visually tall. 

However, the film’s most striking element is how it redefines superheroism—much like Wonder Woman did last summer—as a feat not reserved for muscular white men, and does so in the most inclusive way possible. Black Panther is not a great superhero movie because the hero is black; Black Panther is a great superhero movie that bravely never shies away from what makes it atypical. Racial politics are present and fuel the frustrated Killmonger’s plan for world domination. But like his superhero peers, Black Panther is not just meant to save Wakanda, Africa or Africans the world over; he is meant to save the world. Just wait for May’s Avengers: Infinity War to see how.