In “Black Panther,” Marvel’s 18th movie in their Cinematic Universe, Chadwick Boseman reprises his titular role of the ruler and defender of the African nation of Wakanda.
We first saw T’Challa in “Captain America: Civil War,” where, due to the death of his father King T’Chaka, he inherits the crown of Wakanda and the title and duties of the Black Panther. Even then, as a secondary character, he left a strong impression on audiences. Not only did he cut an imposing figure in his nearly indestructible suit, but also held his own against Captain America, one of the best hand-to-hand combatants Marvel has.
This film picks up shortly after the events of Civil War, with T’Challa having returned home awaiting his official coronation. We see a man who is certain about what he should do but uncertain about doing it. The memories of his father’s death are still fresh in his mind, his ascension to the throne comes with a heavy heart.
We finally get to see the great nation of Wakanda, built on the marvels of the metal “vibranium,” the strongest metal known, and full of properties that, once harnessed, catapulted Wakanda to a futuristic wonderland, full of technology that would make Iron Man himself turn a shade red in envy.
The depiction of the city is striking, like a gem protruding from the rainforest. Imagine if Starfleet Headquarters was located in Africa instead of San Francisco, and you get a sense of what it is like. The technology is so advanced as to be almost alien, which can be a bit jarring and can detract from the story at times. As a matter of royal policy Wakanda is a closed nation, for reasons of security. But after seeing the amazing things they have, Wakandans suddenly seem like the big bad kid in the playground who wouldn’t share his toys.
Indeed, while the movie boasts excellent visuals and other trappings audiences have come to expect from Marvel Studios, the strength lies in the characters. More than the previous installments in the Marvel franchise, “Black Panther” is character driven. It is a stand-alone film, a piece in the larger tapestry of the Marvel Universe but does little to move the audience closer to the culminating event that is “Avengers: Infinity War.” As such, it frees the filmmakers from having to accommodate any setting up or foreshadowing of future films and gives them much more room for the movie to breathe and find its footing.
T’Challa is a somewhat unique character in the Marvel pantheon. He is not really a superhero, not the same sort at least, as Cap and the rest, who actively or not, stand ready to defend mankind as a whole. He is a ruler of a kingdom, and as such his duties and loyalties as a leader come first.
Here we see him struggle with what he is faced with, and while the stakes are raised, the focus stays mostly on him and his growth and overcoming of his obstacles. In “Civil War,” we saw how he rejected the notion of revenge by sparing the man responsible for his father’s death. Here, we see him continue his transformation into someone who might make a good ruler. As his father told him, “It is hard for a good man to be King.”
The main villain this time out is Erik Killmonger, played by an arresting Michael B. Jordan. While both actors are black, they contrast each other superbly and that is a joy to watch. Boseman’s majestic bearing and controlled, Nelson-Mandella-like speech is directly opposed to Jordan’s kinetic, more contemporary presence and demeanor. They are the embodiment of one of the biggest quandaries in the film: The preservation of the old, the traditions, the practices that made a people what they are as opposed to the advancement and adaptation to the new.
There is much talk about the significance of Black Panther to people of color. By all accounts, it is one of Marvel’s most successful and, undoubtedly, its most culturally influential films. The essence of the African culture flows through the film like a river, informing everything from costume design to the language used and certain story points and character decisions.
The film is not devoid of a heart thankfully, nor a brain. The conflict presented is palpable, and socially relevant. There are quite a few jabs towards white people in the film, which I suspect, give voice to what many people of many ethnicities are thinking. In the end though, the movie takes the highroad and abstains from outright attacking white people. In an interesting reversal, Martin Freeman’s Agent Everette Ross even becomes the token white guy in a predominantly black film.
Director Ryan Coogler does a fine job of balancing the celebrating of the African culture and the tackling of social ills within the confines of a mainstream blockbuster. It invites introspection, inspires and entertains at the same time. And those are the movies worth talking about.
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