52-week challenge, week 9
I’ll be blunt — I’ve seen a fair number of superhero films, including a good sampling (though nowhere near all) of the MCU and DC superhero movies. They can certainly be fun, but I usually find myself taken out of the story by the effects and stunts (regardless of how good they are, they routinely disrespect basic physics), especially as time goes on. Black Panther is certainly the best MCU movie I’ve seen to date, but that’s because it plays to my liking of Afro-futurism as a deeply underrated movie genre.
I was very impressed that Marvel went for a movie that was a deeply and topically the African and African-American experience as they did, adding in the futuristic secret of Wakanda, and one which dealt actually quite little with the typical superhero antics, though those boxes are certainly ticked — but there is relatively little of Black Panther the action man and mostly a focus on characters. A lot of the credit has to go to the note-perfect casting throughout.
Even the established stars like Andy Serkis and Michael B. Jordan turn in solid performances, and of course Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira alongside Letitia Wright and Angela Bassett get plenty of non-romantic, meaningful screen time (makes a nice change in the male-dominated superhero genre). I would be deeply remiss if I didn’t mention Chaswick Boseman’s star turn, aided by great supporting characters played by Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani, Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, and Winston Duke. Some of the most believable and fleshed-out characters in the whole of the MCU are to be found here — and even though he wasn’t quite as great as the rest of the cast, it was great fun to see Martin Freeman as the token white ally.
For a fantasy movie, this had a lot of hard truths within it — starting with the guise that has kept Wakanda’s secret: of course the rest of the world is comfortable seeing Wakanda as a poor country not worth making into a tourist destination, since it pretends to have no practical resources to exploit. The central theme of the film is actually the debate going on both internally and externally about whether Wakanda can reveal its power source, wealth, and technology to the wider world without risking colonization.
The villain of the piece, N’Jadaka/Killmonger, turns out to be T’Challa’s nephew. T’Challa’s father T’Chaka murdered his own brother, N’Jadaka’s father N’Jobu, for stealing and selling Vibranium — which some disreputable people (like Ulysses Klaue, played by Serkis) have come to understand is Wakanda’s secret.
This injustice, which T’Chaka later covered up and kept secret, causes the boy N’Jadaka to become a mercenary killer known as Killmonger. Now an adult, and having trained as a Black Ops Navy SEAL, he returns to Wakanda to challenge T’Challa for the throne. He appears to win the challenge, and immediately begins implementing the flip side of the Wakanda debate: he wants to position this secretly-superior country as the rightful ruler of all countries, turning its technology and resources into a war machine.
Killmonger finds lots of allies among the Wakandan population, and wins over the military wing. T’Challa, having disappeared and taken time to recover from near-death after the first battle with Killmonger, returns to Wakanda to reclaim his throne and must resume his battle — now with much of Wakandan might allied against him, and Killmonger now has powers and the suit the equal of the Black Panther.
As with all such movies, good eventually prevails against wrong, but unlike most other MCU films, things are not fully reset at the end. T’Challa takes on enough of the “Wakanda should be open” argument to bring his defectors back around, and starts making carefully-considered moves to let the world know about his country. It reminds me of some of the more recent, more mature Bond movies in its handling of issues, but the effects are strictly standard-issue, with a mix of fighting/action enhanced stunt work, and Sci-Fi type holo-effects abounding.
I’m reluctantly giving Black Panther three and a half stars because of the issues it raises and the focus on Afri-centric style and solid characterization, which means less time for (but still plenty of) fight/stunt/SF sequences, though certainly less stuff blows up in this one than any MCU film I’d seen thus far. I’m hoping — but not expecting — the sequel, Wakanda Forever, to keep this balancing act going. Sadly, Boseman’s premature death from cancer meant that much of what we would have expected from the sequel had to be changed.