BLACK PANTHER (Directed by Ryan Coogler, 134 minutes, USA, 2018)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Black Panther catches up Chadwick Boseman’s Prince T’Challa — hands down the best part of Captain America: Civil War (2016) — upon his return to the fictional African nation of Wakanda in the wake of his father’s death. A quick prologue fills in the nation’s backstory: centuries ago a giant vibranium meteor crashed into Wakanda, helping the nation to flourish and advance at an amazing rate. Fearing this technological renaissance will invite marauding armies, the five governing tribes to seal off their small nation from the rest of the world, disguising Wakanda as a third world nation. Another side effect of the vibranium deposits in the soil is a “heart-shaped herb” that grows in Wakanda and grants superhuman abilities to those that eat it; this is a sacrament reserved for the King who also carries the moniker of the Black Panther.
Even though T’Challa donned the vibranium armor on his father’s behalf in Civil War; he was not yet officially Wakanda’s leader. To claim the throne he must first fight anyone of royal descent who challenges him in ritual combat on the day of his coronation. When T’Challa’s first mission as the Panther to capture vibranium smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) fails miserably, its Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) who uses Klaue as a bargaining chip to get into Wakanda. The young assassin then challenges the new king laying his own claim to the throne, thanks to a family secret. In keeping with the overarching theme of Marvel Phase 3, T’Challa is forced to deal with the sins of his father as he soon finds “its hard for a man with a good heart to be king.”
Marvel’s Black Panther actually predates the founding of the Black Panther Party, with his first comic appearance in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). In order to put some space between the character and the movement that was quickly picking up steam, Marvel actually attempted to change the character’s name to Black Leopard for a bit, but you can probably see why that didn’t stick. T’Challa was the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics. He is essentially the black Batman, a super genius and master tactician with an endless reservoir of wealth at his command. The Panther in his comic book iteration beat up the Fantastic Four, joined The Avengers, protected Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil absence and beat everyone from Doctor Doom to the Ku Klux Klan.
Black Panther is a seminal moment for the superhero genre, which is not really known for its diversity. The $200 million Marvel tent-pole features an almost all black cast in a film that was directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler. After cutting his teeth on the indie darling Fruitvale Station, Coogler went on to direct Creed, and in the process single-handedly salvaged the Rocky franchise. Creed definitely features themes heavily echoed in Black Panther, as a young man fights to get out of his father’s shadow and make a name for himself in the world. While T’Challa is much different from Adonis, they almost feel like they are two sides of the same coin and how Coogler crafts the narrative around those themes breaks new ground for comic book fare.
Led by Chadwick Boseman, the ensemble cast just oozes big screen charisma. Every character here is a badass, every man walks with unbelievable swagger and every woman is as deadly as she is beautiful. To be honest I wasn’t expecting Boseman’s empathetic take on the Prince, who is by his own accord not ready to take the throne. Its that kind of genuine vulnerability that imbues T’Challa with a quiet strength that give his actions an enormous weight on screen, when he is forced to act. Boseman is surrounded on all sides by equally engaging characters that inhabit this beautifully textured world. You genuinely feel like Ryan really went out of his way to give every actor their moment to get a laugh or a reaction from the audience, and this only makes the audience that much more invested in their world.
In a time when the news cycle is filled with thinly-disguised racism that runs all the way up to the White House, Black Panther is exactly the film we need right now. Hopefully the film will function also as a watershed moment for Marvel given the reception so far, to start to develop films with even more characters of different ethnicities, sexual orientations or genders. I mean how long have we been waiting for that Black Widow film? Black Panther may be long over due, but there was nothing about this film that didn’t feel less than exactly what it should have or could have been, from Michael B. Jordan heart wrenching take on “Killmonger” to Lupita Nyong’o powerful and acrobatic Nakia. Black Panther is a super-charged, highly-entertaining and surprisingly nuanced superhero film, that doesn’t shy away from making a poignant statement at the end. Here’s hoping its cause for soul-searching and reflection. Wakanda forever!