Our forefathers and ancestors we honor decades hence,
Their contributions critical, their heritage immense,
Yet generations prior had no guarantee of sense.
They faced headaches and made mistakes with little recompense
And bore their blunders as we do, and often more intense,
And sometimes leaving faults to fester at their kids’ expense.
Although we honor them and should, their good points as defense,
They’re no more perfect than we are who live in present tense.
To learn from them is wiser still than harboring offense.
MPAA rating: PG-13
When I heard Black Panther was scheduled just two months before Avengers: Infinity War, I had to recognize the wisdom of it. After all, Black Panther would probably be one of the smaller stand-alone entries in the MCU, right? And placing it so close before a hype machine like Infinity War seemed like a good way to ensure its success. Little did I know what a juggernaut Black Panther would become, breaking records and earning rave reviews left and right, which only compounds the wisdom of Marvel’s schedule. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; it is after all the first stand-alone feature for a black superhero, and a lot of effort clearly went into it to make it worth the wait.
Another clever point is how three separate characters were all previously introduced, Andy Serkis’s vibranium smuggler Ulysses Klaue in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett Ross in Captain America: Civil War, and of course Chadwick Boseman’s Prince T’Challa/Black Panther, also from Civil War. Having grown beyond his revenge arc in that movie, T’Challa returns home to deal with the fallout from his father’s death, namely fighting any challengers to his claim on the throne of Wakanda, a fictional country that hides an advanced African utopia behind the guise of a third world country. Yet an unexpected ghost from his family’s past returns in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Stevens, who gets the evocative villain name “Killmonger” and doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves.
Many have noted the film’s biggest strength is its characters, and not just Boseman’s regal hero or Jordan’s complex villain. Compared with other Marvel outings, there’s a strong supporting cast here, especially the three women in T’Challa’s life: his not-quite-ex Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), the general of Wakanda’s all-female special forces unit Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). There’s a reason Wright seems to be everyone’s favorite; as T’Challa’s over-eager sister, she’s both a hilarious tease and a Q-style genius, providing him with gadgets and specializing in the many uses of vibranium technology, advances that would make Tony Stark jealous. There’s also Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s queen mother, and Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out is clearly having a good year, between his Best Actor nomination and a chance to ride a war rhino. And then there’s the two token white people in Freeman and Serkis, both refugees from Middle Earth who must have enjoyed working together again.
I’ve been rewatching Marvel’s movies leading up to Infinity War and noticed how much more serious earlier films like Iron Man were, compared with the flippant comedy of 2017’s offerings. Black Panther is a return to that more straight-faced comic book style (albeit still with some laughs) and actually has pretty deep conflicting themes at its heart. I agree with one review I heard comparing T’Challa and Killmonger to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, both intending to help their people yet disagreeing fundamentally on how to do it. Killmonger is all about force and revenge, while T’Challa prefers the isolationism that has preserved Wakanda from the history of colonialism. T’Challa’s clearly the good guy, but it’s interesting how his position still changes in the light of past mistakes. To complement the thematic complexity, writer/director Ryan Coogler also displays his skill behind the camera, including a couple of those extended action tracking shots that elevated Creed as well.
I’ve read plenty of reviews saying things like “Is it as good as everyone says? Heck, yes and better!” I wanted to be the same way, but, as has been common with some of Marvel’s recent installments, I must be a bit more restrained in my praise. I liked it and have liked it more upon reflection, but it’s not among my favorite MCU movies. I suppose the main reason is all the African mysticism; while some of it is significant to the story and adds to the culture building, I’ve never particularly liked that kind of strange tradition and ritual, whether it’s African, Far Eastern, or something alien from Star Trek. Sorry if that sounds not multicultural enough, but it just doesn’t connect with me. Parts of it also seem to undercut how advanced Wakanda otherwise is, like deciding its leadership with a fight to the death.
I can’t help but wonder, based on its historic place in comic book movie history, whether I’m racially obligated to love Black Panther, and no, I don’t think anyone should be. It is a good movie, exploring a hitherto unexplored corner of the MCU, but I personally don’t see it as top-three-Marvel-movie material. I enjoyed it overall, particularly the characters and the action, and the entire big battle at the end was absolutely awesome. I do think I’ll appreciate it more upon a rewatch, especially getting to see it again with subtitles. (I’m terrible with deciphering accents, and almost everyone had one, so I’m sure there’s stuff I missed.)
Like I said before, I shouldn’t be surprised at Black Panther’s success. I remember an episode of the cartoon Static Shock (itself a great superhero show with a black protagonist), where the main character was awestruck at meeting a professional hero from Africa, even though he himself had superpowers. There’s a lot to be said for being able to look up to a hero who looks like you. Turning out in droves, the black community deserves to see themselves in this noble and heroic character. Marvel, Coogler, Boseman, and everyone involved have much to be proud of, and even if certain elements will appeal more to others than to me, I’m glad Black Panther has found such success on the big screen.
Best line: (T’Challa, with a very timely message) “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2018 S.G. Liput
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