“You will destroy the world, Wakanda included!”
“The world took everything away from me! Everything I ever loved! But I’ma make sure we’re even. I’ma track down anyone who would even think of being loyal to you, and I’ma put their ass in the dirt, right next to Zuri!”
The Wakandan Board of Tourism must truly be a buzzing hive of state-sponsored propaganda and activity, secretive yet proud (with ample reason for each posture), by turns touting and tempering outsider interest in the emerging Central African nation’s rich, impressive, at times head-spinning history, cultural traditions, dangerous geographic beauty, anthropological complexity, philanthropic motivations, and booming industrial and technological concerns in relation to an unsteady, still-evolving position on the world stage. Damn good thing, I guess, that it doesn’t exist. Yet. Wakanda, the fictional swath of third world African flyover country with the clandestine first world pedigree and explosive new world potential, is the breakout star of the much-anticipated Black Panther, and stands tall and apart as the premier achievement in Marvel’s world building efforts thus far. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has, of course, already crafted from whole cloth numerous environments never before seen, whether intergalactic, intercontinental, or even interdimensional, so this is no small accomplishment. I would further argue that Wakanda is as thoughtfully, lovingly, and comprehensively realized as any single element – not, for example, Asgard, where Thor lives, nor Sakaar, where he was imprisoned and became a close-cropped space gladiator, but, rather, Thor himself – in the MCU lexicon, in its scenery, which is predictably spectacular, in its backstory, which is merely pretty damned cool, and in its abundant castle intrigue, which is both dense and exotic enough, and at least as dramatically resonant as a college drama department’s semester-ending production of Hamlet.
Superheroes can sure surprise you. Introverted and brooding, formidable, and expressionless, the masked Black Panther doesn’t much feel like the geniuses, demigods, or accidents of nature that have come before him. That’s obviously at least part of the point. Black Panther the movie is, itself, a strange but winning case, a fairly smashing success on the macro level while an odd, lavish melange – equal parts goofy and serious, regal and overbearing, scattershot and profound – on the personal. It holds an emotional mirror to its troubled protagonist, Prince, nee, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, too cool for school, and borderline aloof as a result), right up to the moment he succeeds his father to the Wakandan throne, at which point their paths diverge markedly. The heavier the crown lies figuratively on T’Challa’s brow, the more buoyant the movie surrounding him noticeably becomes. Wakanda, with its sartorial riot of color and cavalcade of stunning vistas, ingrained styles both aural and visual, and near ceaseless expulsion of kinetic energy, wills the film to match it stride for stride, leaving T’Challa perpetually to catch up. Cast with a liberating cross-section of modern African-American acting – Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kulaaya, plus professional ringer guest star Forrest Whitaker – boasting multi-layered production design, mile deep and lived-in, and a slick, involving Kendrick Lamar-abetted soundtrack, Black Panther manages to look, sound, and feel like no other Marvel movie or, if that isn’t big ticket enough for you, modern action blockbuster, perhaps ever has.
It is also a rare case in the realm of interpersonal film dynamics where a titular lead is not merely outstripped by, say, a charismatic villain – ask Christian Bale if that occasionally happens – but is also just demonstrably less interesting than almost literally everyone around him. We’re talking his activist old flame, his whiz-kid sister, his royal mother, his deceased father, his deceased uncle, his captain of guards, his retinue of anonymous, possibly mute, actual guards, his best friend, his (conventional) rival for power, his spiritual advisor, his CIA contact, the international terrorist they’re both chasing, the nattily clad tribal elder with the plate in his lower lip, et al., and only then do we mention the villain…especially the villain. We’ll get to him a bit later. T’Challa’s explosive introduction as an adjunct Avenger proved a pivotal plot point of Captain America: Civil War, and I remembered rightly singling out Boseman’s performance for praise. It’s still the same character here, though the stoic man of action is dialed back a degree or two further, now waist deep in mourning and uncertain of how best to rule. It’s a crucial distinction that he starts the movie ensconced and already battling evil as the Black Panther, since detailing the origin of both T’Challa and his ancestral homeland would be a deadly and possibly fatal requirement. This Black Panther isn’t even the first Black Panther, which would’ve represented additional red tape. To co-opt/mangle a famous heroic proclamation, “he is a jedi, like his father was before him.”
Instead, we begin with evocative voiceover as a father tells his eager young son wistful bedtime stories of “home”. The tale’s illustrated CGI accompaniment, with grains of the rare and impossibly precious metal vibranium coalescing into images of warring tribes and other cultural signifiers, provides a lovely visual backdrop and some interesting foreshadowing. Black Panther consistently shines on the level of specific detail, though you can also always tell we’re dealing with a fictional creation here, conceptually as well as visually. Wakanda, still flush from the geological windfall of a vibranium meteor that struck the savannah generations earlier, not only essentially lives as a 22nd-century technological superpower, arguably the most advanced nation on the planet, beneath a self-imposed veneer of poverty and neutrality, but assigns to its monarch the duty of state security guard, imbuing him with mystical superhuman powers and literally charging him to “protect the realm” instead of just paying the concept lip service in speeches. I’m thankful the current job description seems to mainly involve zealous defense of Wakandan borders (the sprawling, unnamed capitol city is housed under a cloaked dome that renders it invisible upon approach) and the pursuit of rogue caches of vibranium scattered throughout the world before they can fall into the hands of unscrupulous arms dealers or worse. Imagine the litany of corrupt historical African “strongman” dictators (Amin, Mugabe, Gaddafi, etc.) that would have reduced to smoking rubble the continent and beyond if given that sort of endowment and potential arsenal.
Continuing Marvel’s prescient run of choosing character-focused storytellers over wholesale distributors of CGI spectacle, Black Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), a young but already accomplished hand of great thematic clarity and intense focus. One particularly senses Coogler’s influence in the emergence of Erik Killmonger (a simmering, just barely controlled Michael B. Jordan), the enigmatic terrorist associate and all-around smooth criminal who, despite his conventionally unassuming status/appearance as – let me see if I have this right – an ordinary (however aggrieved) human being, vaults right to the front of the line as the MCU’s best pre-Thanos villain. Killmonger, an orphaned inner city kid who hardened after redirecting his rage in unwholesome directions on the battlefield, has, by turns, entrenched and radical ideas about how the world works for the disenfranchised, how it should, and, after he reveals himself as a stealth but particularly driven contender to the Wakandan throne, how it could. The ceremonial challenges for power, one on one battles, first between Prince T’Challa and a rival tribal leader and, later, between King T’Challa and the usurper Killmonger, that take place on a cliff at the precipitous edge of a drained waterfall, are the film’s action high points, gut level, visceral, and painfully personal. Killmonger is a villain custom engineered to unsettle audiences, in large part because, however bloodthirsty and extreme, there is a level on which his aims might sound reasonable, or, failing that, like unblinkered justice. He’s harder to beat rhetorically than physically. Even T’Challa, who must end him to restore peace to his land and staunch anarchy outside it, isn’t without sympathy.
Coogler’s commitment to co-existence between thoughtfulness and heavy artillery artifice doesn’t always produce even results. Visually, Black Panther is distinguished without being spectacular on the level of Marvel’s most resounding triumphs, though individual sequences – the claustrophobic interpersonal cliff-top combat, the breakneck pursuit of vibranium thief and Wakandan’s most wanted Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, chewing scenery at an astonishing rate) through South Korean traffic using remote controlled virtual vehicles, the descending full reveal of Wakanda as a rustic meets cyberpunk world within a world within a world – both resonate and shine. By contrast, the climactic Wakandan Civil War is a jumbled fast-forward mess of barely distinguishable opponents (only T’Challa’s personal guard uniforms stand out amongst the fray) and disconnected story threads, lasting, in terms of total screen time, approximately half as long as did the main event in Captain America: Civil War, and making equivalent sense. You can feel Coogler struggling to subdue the multi-faceted screenplay and wrangle it in the directions and at the velocity he wants it to go, though, on some level, there just remain too many set pieces and loose ends to effectively steer. So much care and craft has gone into the look and feel of Wakanda – the sets, the wardrobe, the multi-tiered design – and the performances (by Jordan, by Nyong’o, by Letitia Wright as precocious sister Shuri, the “Q” to Boseman’s James Bond) are, on the whole, so fun and/or distinguished that it’s a shame the final forty minutes couldn’t be coherent in addition to being conclusive.
Its eighteenth feature in just shy of a decade, Black Panther has, already and often, been described as a turning point for the MCU, as well as the departure it more clearly represents, and whether or not the former proves true, some sort of adjustment at this point is probably necessary for the enterprise’s long term survival. These things are cyclical, of course. Black Panther arrives cloaked in mystery and bountiful potential, the way Superman once did as a trailblazer at the end of the 1970s, or Batman as a gamechanger at the close of the ‘80s, yet somehow more an unknown. The MCU rumbles on with relentless efficiency, but also an increasing eye toward racial and gender inclusivity within its ranks that wasn’t a miscalculation when it was first announced and may yet prove the cinematic equivalent of a vibranium meteor-strike when all is said and done. There seems to be no superhero movie of recent vintage (maybe The Crow?) more suited to that breathless, cliched poster and/or radio tagline from yesteryear: “Who Is [Insert Hero Here]?”, yet we end Black Panther not appreciably much closer to the answer than we began. King T’Challa’s first (solo) outing, however, is still exceptional popcorn entertainment and more, carefully imagined and rendered, brought to life on both sides of the camera with vibrancy and an uncommon sense of place. It’s a great first start that, happily, paves the way toward a more prominent role in comic book Earth’s future. The end credits bumper even suggests as much, loudly.
“Black Panther” (2018) 3.5/4 stars