Format: Market Square Cinema.
So it only took me six weeks or so to get to Black Panther. That’s honestly pretty good for me; this marks the fourth time I’ve been to a theater in the last 27 months. Typically, I wait for the movie to come out on one format or another and watch it then. Still, for what it’s worth T’Challa is my favorite Avenger character and has been for some time.
I realize that that sounds like the sort of claim that might be made by someone looking to score some social justice credibility, but that’s not the case. There was a period where I was a comic book nerd. That lasted for a few years, and included at least part of the time that Marvel Comics produced a book called Marvel Comics Presents. It came out bi-weekly, and contained four 8-page stories, three of which would be serialized over a given number of issues. In issue #13, they started a 25-part Black Panther story called Panther Quest, which was my introduction to the character. So, for nearly a year I followed this story through the character’s pain and heartbreak and dealing with racism and apartheid. Like I said, he became my favorite Avenger-related character pretty quickly.
I’m not going to spend a great deal of time here on plot. Chances are nearly 100% that you’ve already seen this, so I’m not going to waste my time. There’s a bit of origin story here in the sense that we get the mythology of the Black Panther as a character and the specifics of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being handed the mantle of King of the African nation of Wakanda, which includes a challenge to his throne. There’s a combination of super-high technology and mysticism here that seems to work well. It’s one of the things I liked about Doctor Strange. And, of course, there’s going to be another challenge to his rule and we’re going to spend the bulk of the movie not saving the world but dealing with the future of the nation of Wakanda.
Like I said, I’m not going to deal a lot with the plot here because you likely already know it, since I’m almost certainly the last person who has contact with this blog to see Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll find no spoilers here, or at least not many that you wouldn’t get from the trailer. There are some things that definitely need to be addressed with the film, though, mainly in terms of what it does right.
First, the idea of Afrofuturism is awfully cool. One of the connections I make to this is an old computer game I had to review years and years ago called Inca. The game essentially posited an Incan society that was never contacted by Europe and eventually expanded to space travel. It was a fascinating visual combination of this ancient art and culture with futuristic technology, and this aspect was much better than the game. I love this aspect of Black Panther--seeing a vision of non-colonized Africa is really interesting. It’s also interesting to see the philosophical difference here between Wakanda and Western nations. In the Marvel lore, the U.S. gets some vibranium and sticks all of it in a single shield and gives it to one guy. Wakanda gets vibranium and gives it to pretty much everybody in the country.
One aspect that makes Black Panther work as well as it does is that we’re given a main villain here, Erik “Killmonger,” (Michael B. Jordan) who makes a great deal of sense. His tactics are brutal and terrible and we’re never going to think that he’s a good or decent person, but it’s impossible to listen to him talk about what is happening in the world and about what he wants to do and not see that he has a point. It makes the film so much better to have a villain who is not specifically sympathetic, but who isn’t just some megalomaniac or crazy person. Killmonger, for all his faults, makes sense.
I also like that in many ways, Black Panther is a smaller movie. We’re not dealing with saving the world the way we did in Avengers: Age of Ultron. We’re dealing instead with the soul of Wakanda and, as such, the soul of its people. It’s a much more interesting story because of that.
Let’s also talk about the casting, which is great. In addition to Boseman and Jordan (both of whom are excellent), this is a loaded cast from top to bottom. Stand outs include the always-wonderful Lupita Nyong’o as both a spy and T’Challa’s love interest; Danai Gurira as the bad-ass leader of the Wakandan military; Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s friend and heir to leadership of a Wakandan tribe, and Winston Duke as the leader of the outcast Wakandan tribe. I love that Forest Whittaker is here, too, since I’ve been a fan of him for decades. It’s also lovely to see that Angela Bassett, whom I have loved since I first saw her in Strange Days, is still awesome. Toss in the (I love this joke) Tolkien white guys of Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, and you’ve got a hell of a cast.
For all this, though, the true break out character here is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is also in charge of Wakanda’s technology and research. Shuri is quickly established as our comic relief character, but Black Panther is smart enough as a movie to not make her just that. Shuri is competent and talented as a scientist and as a warrior. I also completely buy the sibling relationship between Wright and Boseman, who have that sort of chemistry on screen.
Are there problems? A couple, and at least some of them aren’t the fault of the film. It’s perhaps over-hyped right now. In a sense, that’s my fault for not going sooner. It would be hard for Black Panther to live up to its hype. But I get it. Were I a 16-year-old (or 30-year-old, or 50-year-old) black man, I would look at this film in the same way I look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. The idea of seeing these powerful black characters on screen—and for so many of those characters to be strong and powerful women—is important. That’s not lost on me even if that’s not for me at all. It’s not the movie’s fault that it won’t have that same kind of importance for me. It can’t and it’s not supposed to.
The only other problem I see here is one that really couldn’t be avoided. Black Panther needs to establish a lot. It does this pretty well, but there are a lot of things to deal with here—characters, culture, Afrofuturism, Wakanda as a nation, and a lot more. In that sense, it feels a little rushed.
As a final comment, if Black Panther isn’t nominated at the next Oscars for costuming at the very least, there are some problems.
Why to watch Black Panther: Marvel movies have become not just good, but relevant.
Why not to watch: It’s overhyped right now.