Review by C.J. Bunce
Ryan Coogler, the young writer-director of the excellent Rocky sequel Creed, has put his Creed star Michael B. Jordan against Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in last year’s film Marshall. The result? The next great Marvel superhero movie, Black Panther, opening this weekend in theaters everywhere. Boseman is back as King T’Challa, the suave and poised Black Panther of the comic books who audiences first met in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The new film fills in the blanks of T’Challa’s origin story, populated with a dozen of the best characters from any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, matched to some of today’s best actors. On the heels of last year’s wildly successful surprise hit Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther is just as good if not better, but completely different. It’s a more serious tale, a one-off in the MCU similarly spliced into the ongoing Avengers narrative as was done with 2016’s supernatural Doctor Strange. It also supplies a new, rich superhero mythology populated primarily with black characters–a film first featuring a black superhero title character in a major studio release. Coogler’s layered, multifaceted film is even more successful at accomplishing what Zack Snyder tried to do last year with the DC Universe film Wonder Woman, which first put a woman in a title role in a major superhero movie. Coogler makes great strides with Black Panther, not just a mere first step.
Beginning with a father teaching his son about a hidden country in Africa called Wakanda, we learn that a powerful resource called vibranium gives the people of this land incredible power, which they hide from the known world. The story is straight out of Shakespeare or Roman and Greek histories: three princes compete for the throne of Wakanda when the King dies in a terrorist attack at the United Nations. Boseman’s T’Challa is the heir-apparent who is challenged for the throne first by Prince M’Baku (Winston Duke), then by Jordan’s Erik Stevens, a special forces soldier from the States whose death toll in battle earned him the nickname Killmonger. Not just a one-note villain found so often in superhero movies, Erik has his own complex backstory that converges with T’Challa’s efforts to capture the film’s villain, Ulysses Klaue (pronounced “claw”), one of Marvel’s best villains yet, played by Middle-earth native Gollum and The Planet of the Apes’s series’ star Andy Serkis. Although his antics are unique, here Klaue is the crazed villain you’d expect from a superhero story. Erik also assumes a villain role, but his story and particularly his life in parallel to the new King is more biblical in its roots. Erik’s father is N’Jobu, a compelling supporting character at odds with Wakanda, played by Marshall co-star and Supernatural’s Sterling K. Brown, and his past sets up a compelling tragedy arc within the film for Erik.
For those who go to superhero movies for badass superheroics, it’s the women of the film that fill that niche. Our own early borg.com nominee for the annual badass heroine of the year goes to the fan-favorite actor from The Walking Dead, Danai Gurira, as Wakanda General Okoye. Her steely resolve and loyalty alone is enough to get us to race back to the theater to watch her all over again in the theater tomorrow. A Wakanda spy and confidante of the King is Nakia, played by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Jungle Book star Lupita Nyong’o, a fierce and savvy ally. But a favorite of the film for many will no doubt be T’Challa’s young sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright (Doctor Who, Ready Player One, Humans, The Commuter). The film doesn’t completely find its voice and reach full throttle until Shuri lets out a howl in a conversation with her brother. By that point the entire audience is onboard. Shuri is very much derived from Q in the James Bond movies, supplying her brother with the latest tech. After movie audiences got a peek at what a woman would look like as James Bond with South African actress Charlize Theron as a superspy in last year’s Atomic Blonde, those looking for the first black James Bond need go no further than Boseman’s smooth and stylish take on T’Challa. Coogler even inserts a spectacular casino mission scene straight out of 2012’s Skyfall, and borrows another great character from the Bond playbook with The Hobbit and Sherlock actor Martin Freeman as a very, very Felix Leiter-esque American CIA agent named Everett Ross. A scene pitting Freeman opposite Serkis again will be a fun reunion for fans of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies.
Aside from the typical required Marvel overly-long final, sprawling battle scene (with T’Challa and Erik facing off near a futuristic train), audiences will be hard-pressed to find any fault with the film. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole provide a tight script (even famous brother writers Donald Glover and Stephen Glover added to the T’Challa-Shuri relationship development), entertaining dialogue, a fascinating new language and dialect, and a great standalone Marvel story that creates a stepping off point for the next Marvel film coming this summer, Avengers: Infinity War. Look no further for next year’s Oscar’s sure-fire best costume designer in Ruth E. Carter (Selma, Marshall, Do the Right Thing), who uses beautiful fabrics and African cultural components and designs sourced in African history along with contemporary styles to create a completely new world of clothing for the Wakandans. Composer Ludwig Göransson (Creed, Get Out, Riverdale, Community, Death Wish, Central Intelligence, Angie Tribeca) creates a sense of gravity and importance with his score, even inserting appropriate cues that resemble lofty epic movie themes from biblical and imperialistic films from the likes of Miklós Rózsa and Maurice Jarre.
The characters and acting are so exceptional even with supporting characters that three other key roles are worthy of mention. The current Academy Award-nominated actor for Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya, plays T’Challa’s second-in-command W’Kabi, a leader whose loyalty to Wakanda is clear. He also knows his way around an armored rhinoceros. Forest Whitaker continues to stack up worthy roles, this time as an elder Mr. Miyagi of sorts for the new King. And Angela Bassett is completely authentic, motherly and wise as the Queen of Wakanda.
Cool supersuits and sci-fi tech, an elaborate new world, a rich story, and great characters and acting talent, Black Panther will appeal to all ages and fans of the superhero genre as well as epic fantasy and classical myths and lore. See it this weekend in theaters nationwide.