This is a spoiler-free review.
I’m amazed. How is it are we 10 years and 18 movies in but still getting movies of this quality? Most franchises start fizzling out after the second movie. I’m not saying the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perfect. It’s not. This franchise has, on numerous occasions, shit the bed. Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk come to mind. But as a whole, the MCU consists of mostly good, some great movies.
Black Panther isn’t just a good Marvel movie, it isn’t just a superb comic book movie — one of the best I might add — it is a fucking great movie. Period. This is another comic book movie, just like Wonder Woman and Logan last year, and The Dark Knight before that, that prove that ‘comic book’ isn’t a genre, but a form.
This is an epic war film; It is a heartbreaking family drama; At times it is a James Bond-esque espionage. This is a film that will empower women, just as much as Wonder Woman did; A film with heavy sociopolitical themes (if you don’t like politics in films, maybe this isn’t for you. Also, grow up and stop being a baby). This is a film that is unabashedly black. And I love it, very very much.
The film opens with a brief history of Wakanda in stylistic animated form — think about the scene in “Wonder Woman” where Hippolyta tells Diana about how Themyscira came to be. We cut to the present. We get a sweeping shot of Wakanda in a scene that will put a smile on your face.
The cinematography by Rachel Morrison (the first female cinematographer to get an Oscar nomination in the history of cinema) is breathtaking. The production design by Hannah Beachler, spellbinding. How much of it is CG, how much of it is practical effects, I do not know. And that’s a good thing. CG and practical effects are interweaved seamlessly here (besides the final battle where the CG is a little wonky). What Ryan Coogler does is make Wakanda a character in and of itself. It is a film that celebrates and showcases the beauty of African culture.
T’Challa is about to be officially coronated as king and Black Panther. Then he goes on a mission to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). We also have Michael B. Jordan’ s Killmonger, who challenges T’Challa for the throne. I won’t divulge any more of the plot, for this is a movie that one should go in knowing as little as possible. Also because I signed a piece of paper that said if you include spoilers, Ramsay Bolton will rise from the dead, flay you and hang you for the world to see. Those were the exact words, I swear.
The real hero of it all isn’t Black Panther (which I will get to in a second) but writer-director Ryan Coogler. He first made himself known with the tiny, soul-crushing independent film, Fruitvale Station. He then moved on to something bigger — Creed. An argument can be made that Creed is the best film in the Rocky franchise. Because of the success of both those films, Coogler received the opportunity to make a Marvel movie. Here, he is once again in the zone. Despite being part of the Marvel ‘machine’, Black Panther stands on its own, with Coogler’s singular vision on full display.
The scope of Black Panther may be bigger, with more characters and large exciting action set pieces, but Coogler tackles the core of this movie like he would an indie film. This is the most emotionally moving Marvel movie to date. Coogler is juggling approximately 14 characters here, but he’s always in control. Every character is handled with care. He isn’t afraid to slow down and let these characters breathe and the let the conflict build.
The writing by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole is exceptional. It baffles me how they managed to pen 14 characters and make us care about each and every single one of them by the end of the movie, while also commenting on important sociopolitical themes.
Although only appearing in brief moments in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther became one of my favourite characters. At the time, it was mostly because of the kickass suit and Chadwick Boseman’s presence. But here, we cut through the meat of the character. At first, he’s introduced as the cool guy, ever ready to jump into action. But almost immediately after, we see another side to him. We see how nervous he gets in presence of his love interest, Nakia.
After the coronation, we feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. He worries that he’ll never be as great a king as his father. And later, when he uncovers some dark truths, he questions the kind of man his dad truly was. Now he wonders if he’ll be able to do better than past leaders.
Just like “Star Wars: Last Jedi”, this is another exploration of old values vs the new. Nothing is painted in black and white. While the old values may seem selfish and wrong, we understand decisions they had to make back in the day. At the time, it seemed right. Perhaps at the time, it was right.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). For years now, one area of the MCU that has been a constant magnet for criticism is its consistently forgettable villains. Besides Loki, (who I would argue is good, not great, despite what everybody else says), none of the other villains have made any sort of lasting impression. Then comes Killmonger, who is the best damn villain in a comic book movie, outside of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
What a character! What. A. Character. Killmonger is ruthless. Black Panther is a great warrior, Killmonger is even better. Here’s a man who has been training and fighting and even killing — he enlisted in the army — all his life, preparing to face T’Challa and destroy him. Because of his ruthlessness and fearlessness, he seems to always have an edge over T’Challa. But it isn’t just his physicality that makes him an imposing villain, but the fact that he’s extremely motivated and willing to do whatever it takes, kill whoever it takes, to get what he wants. Just that alone would have made him a good villain.
But Coogler doesn’t stop there. Coogler makes Killmonger the emotional core of the film. When the layers are peeled, we realize why Killmonger is the way he is. Killmonger brings up interesting and valid arguments. There is no doubt that Killmonger is a cruel man. But he’s a cruel man that we understand.
He asks important questions. How can the people of Wakanda keep all the resources to themselves, hide in the shadows and live so happily and peacefully when all around the world, there are people who look like them that are oppressed and suffering? Is it wrong for the oppressed to be given the tools to wage war against the ruling class and change the status quo?
This is a film that when the flesh is stripped and the bones are left on the table, we see that the good guys, as noble as they seemingly are, are also selfish. And the bad guy, as barbarous as his methods are, makes sense. What makes Killmonger a great villain is the fact that we understand him and FEEL for him.
Black Panther is also a surprisingly feminist film. Every single female character in this movie is a badass. Despite being directed by a man, there is a noticeable absence of male gaze. The camera doesn’t linger on any of the characters’ boobs or ass. The female characters are all sexy, but they’re not sex objects. THEY KICK SERIOUS ASS.
The imperial guards known as the Dora Milaje are all women. The leader of the Dora Milaje is Okoye, played by Danai Gurira. She’s the most conflicted of the female characters. Just like Kattapa in “Baahubali”, her loyalty is to the throne and not to any single individual, despite what her own feelings are. There is one scene towards the end, one line delivered by Gurira with such conviction and passion, it will send shivers down your spine.
We also have Nakia, activist and T’Challa’s love interest played by Lupita Nyong’o, and Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, who’s very much like Q from James Bond. The back and forth they have with T’Challa is some of the most fun (but still purposeful) moments of the film. Nakia isn’t the average love interest you see in most blockbuster movies. She doesn’t kiss T’Challa goodbye and tear up, hoping he would come back safe. She FIGHTS alongside him. And when he’s doing wrong, she isn’t afraid to tell him so. Screw Megan Fox in “Transformers”, Nakia is the definition of dream girl. Shuri is a character every younger sister would be able to relate to — she flashes her middle finger at T’Challa and constantly teases him.
And we also have Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Angela Bassett as Ramonda — T’Challa’s mom — Sterling K. Brown as N’Jobu, Forest Whitaker as Zuri, and Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue. Every single one of these smaller characters are memorable and have individual arcs. All the decisions these characters make are organic. It is brilliant writing.
But great writing alone isn’t enough to make a character work. The performances are equally as important. And I kid you not when I say that there are some performances in here that deserve Oscar buzz. It’s too early to tell if any of them should get nominated, after all, we still have 10 months of movies to go. But it would be a damn shame if the likes of Danai Gurira and Michael B. Jordan do not at least have buzz around them leading up to Oscar season. Michael B. Jordan, whose performance is controlled and internal will break your heart. And there is a conversation T’Challa has with his father in the dream-afterlife world that OMG even thinking about it makes me tear up.
And it is because of character writing like that when the final battle sequence happens, you’re at the edge of your seats. The action sequences move at a kinetic pace and the scope is like a lesser version of “Battle of the Bastards” but still bloody awesome.
But you’re at the edge of your seats because you feel connected to the characters and understand the gravity of the situation. Every punch, every stab, every scream, every wail will make you feel. It tore me to pieces. I was emotionally overwhelmed, fist clenched, tears rolling down my cheeks.
The humour in this film, is the kinda humour that I love. Unlike in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, which is my least favourite MCU movie to date (yes, I like “Iron Man 2” more), the comedy here is well balanced and natural. Like when Shuri flashes her middle finger to T’Challa behind her mother’s back, it’s funny but it also feels like something that character will do at that moment. And not once, does the comedy undercut an emotional moment. Thank you, Ryan Coogler!
This is a great film. And it’s a film that the more I think about, the more I love. It doesn’t just succeed as an entertainment vehicle, it is also a cultural milestone. Black Panther has engraved itself in the history books. In the new era of comic book movies kickstarted by Batman Begins, this is the first time, we get to see a comic book movie centered around a black character. It is also DIRECTED by a black man and WRITTEN by black men, which means even the very voice of the film is something unique; something we must pay attention to.
One day, I’ll get to see a major Hollywood blockbuster centered around an Indian character. But for now, the fact that I get to see a dark-skinned comic book character on the big screen is bloody awesome, too. I know, people are going to tell me, “you probably only love the movie because it has black people in it,” ignoring the fact that I actually talked about other aspects of the movie, besides race and skin colour. Yes and no. I love the movie because of, and regardless of its blackness.
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Black Panther doesn't just succeed as an entertainment vehicle; it is also a cultural milestone. It is a great film because of, and regardless of its blackness.