The arrival of T’Challa in Civil War was a welcome addition to the MCU and his arc provided the film with a neutral viewpoint away from the already established Captain America and Iron Man. Now with Infinity War looming, the prince of Wakanda has been given his own film to help establish himself and Wakanda into the MCU. The result is one of Marvel’s best, and possibly their most politically important movie to date.
Arriving home following the death of his father, T’Chaka, at the hands of Helmut Zemo, T’Challa (Chadwich Boseman) prepares to take the throne as King of Wakanda. Though doubts still trouble him, with help from his technological wizard sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his military head Okoye (Danai Gurira), his best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and his ex-lover/spy-master Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), he’s able to make the first steps into filling his father’s shoes.
Things become complicated when word reaches them that arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artifact from a British Museum and intends to sell it to the highest bidder, while aligning himself with a group of mercenaries including ex-black ops soldier Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). With the Wakandan natives still hurting from Klaue stealing vibranium from them 30 years ago and killing several of their people in his escape, including W’Kabi’s parents, T’Challa goes on the hunt to bring Klaue to justice. However, he soon finds out that the real threat is waiting in the shadows.
Admittedly the first half of the film is a little slow since it has to take the time to introduce Wakanda and all the new characters, but as soon as Erik becomes the main focus, the film kicks into high-gear with a very personal story, but one with its roots in the public consciousness. Erik’s mission takes cues from today’s political climate and it adds a strong message to the core of the plot that enhances the film as a whole. It’s a great showing by Marvel to take this type of story and make it work within the MCU, political thrillers like Winter Soldier are fun and all but this is perhaps the first MCU film with an actual message behind it.
Acting was good with the film using it’s unique locale to introduce a number of interesting new characters to the MCU, ranging from villains like M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of a rival tribe but one who still recognized honor and tradition. Then to allies like Zuri (Forest Whittaker) a religious spiritualist and close friend of T’Chaka and T’Challa’s own mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) a wise and experienced Queen happy to help guide her son to his father’s throne.
Other allies of T’Challa included Okoye, head of security and the all-female guard unit, The Dora Milaje. A more than capable fighter in her own right, Gurira injects enough light humor to humanize the character, but when shit hits the fan she can hit bad-ass mode effortlessly and knock folks out. There are some interesting discussions of tradition that arise from her character and it adds another layer to the film regarding the nature of security both personal and regal. W’Kabi was a confidant and friend to T’Challa, but his own personal hatred of Klaue and T’Challa’s struggle to catch him drives a wedge between them, as much as I like Kaluuya, I think W’Kabi deserved more screen-time. Partly to further build-up his friendship with T’Challa that makes the second half of his arc more impactful, but mostly to give more time between him and Okoye. The two of them were said to be lovers, but we never see them act as a couple, and considering both of them end up on opposite sides of the same cause creates some relationship building that could’ve benefited from them both.
Martin Freeman returned as Everett Ross, the CIA agent last seen in Civil War now back into T’Challa’s life when their paths with Klaue cross-simultaneously. While Ross’ main component was to act as an audience surrogate once he found himself in Wakanda, the film managed to expand upon his character with an air-force background and sense of duty not seen by someone who wasn’t on the front-lines. The two biggest newcomers on T’Challa’s side were Nakia and Shuri; Nakia was part of the Dora Milaje like Okoye, but with a stealthier manner of doing things, working undercover and acting in the field. For lack of a better term she also acted as T’Challa’s love interest, but honestly there was more to their relationship than that. Both had previously been in a relationship and were still on good terms to the point that T’Challa still held Nakia as one of his closest advisers, while there was still personal interest between them. The focus was more professional with T’Challa looking to her for advice, guidance, and most importantly trust.
The breakout character though was Shuri, T’Challa’s 16 year old sister and the Q to his James Bond. With T’Challa being quite serious for a Marvel hero, Shuri provided a good balance with a light-hearted, humorous, and intelligent way of working, not afraid to invent a new gadget then use her brother as a live test subject. Humor is nothing new to the MCU, but it’s nice to have a character so care-free, so comfortable in their own intelligence that they can record the king of their nation being thrown across the room and laugh about it. Shuri definitely stood out as one of the film’s best elements and a solid addition to the MCU.
Boseman’s return as T’Challa is a welcome one, no longer fueled by vengeance, but still hurting over the loss of his father, he’s in an emotionally rough place at the start, but comfortable to be back in his homeland, now acting as it’s King as well as its protector. What’s interesting about T’Challa is that because his vibranium suit is complete bulletproof, the danger to him is not physical but rather psychological. Between his own doubts exacerbated by truths about his father that changed his view of the man he looked up to, and the brunt of Erik’s assault, he’s in more danger of being usurped than he is of being killed. The physical threat is still there, but this is a war on a different front than a lot of what we’ve seen from Marvel. Boseman still manages to impress, some might find him too stoic after the snarky attitude of Stark, or the humor of Thor or the Guardians, but this is a more serious film and he’s taking a more serious attitude that fits well with this film. What he brings to T’Challa is a sense of righteousness, a sense of duty to stand by his people, Boseman pulls off regal very well and even with his self-doubt, you can see the King he’s trying to be.
On the side of the villains there were two main components, the first was Klaue, returning after losing his arm to Ultron, now having replaced it with a sonic weapon. While his time in Age Of Ultron was little more than an extended cameo, Serkis was allowed to let loose here, and he’s clearly having a blast, playing Klaue as a manic smuggler with a penchant for singing Haddaway songs. He’s motivated primarily by money, but being the only outsider to see the hidden Wakanda and escape with his life, part of him also seems to want to keep testing them to see just how far they’ll go to catch him. In terms of MCU villains, Klaue doesn’t change much on it, but he’s still fun to watch.
Who does change up the MCU villain roster is Erik Killmonger, with Jordan and Coogler having worked together on all three of Ryan Coogler’s films, I knew that he wouldn’t give Jordan a weak part, and that’s certainly the case here with perhaps the coldest villain Marvel has put out yet. Trained by black ops and with a cool taste for murder, Erik is a mercenary in the same way that Hulk is a big green guy, to label him as that would be underselling just how good he is, and that’s not even the best part about him. Without getting into too many details, Erik’s grudge against T’Challa stems from a very real place, and you can see his viewpoint even if you don’t agree with his methods, there’s a hint that he’s a product of his environment, and his overall mission is to eradicate that environment. It’s a strong performance from Jordan who revels in being able to play the bad guy, but what makes Erik such a great character is that his goals aren’t too dissimilar from T’Challa’s, but he has a much more direct and violent way of getting them.
That’s perhaps what stands out most about Ryan Coogler’s direction and more importantly what makes this film equally his as much as Marvel’s. There is an actual message here about what it means to be black and the different variations of being black there are in the world. A big part of the film has to do with Wakanda’s technological advancements being hidden from the world and the place seen as a third world country. With the world changing, some Wankandans believe it’s time to share their technology and help with the refugee crisis, while others see opening their borders as inviting threats like Klaue to steal their inventions. Where T’Challa and Erik differ is that T’Challa wants to better Wakanda, but is unsure of how best to go about that. Whereas Erik wants to improve the lives of all black people using Wakandan weapons to start a revolt, having seen too many black people die at the hands of institutionalized racism, while T’Challa has been sheltered in the safety of Wakanda.
It’s that political edge that makes the film stand out so much more with Wakanda being a stand-in for any first-world culture. There’s a heavy emphasis on tradition and through the African Tribal nature of the locations it comes through much clearer, the Wakandan people believe in rituals and old-fashioned ideals past down by generations, but it’s those ideals that have cut them off from the rest of the world. Erik’s arrival with a more militant and dare I say “more American view of black culture” is the system shock that T’Challa needs to start looking beyond Wakanda. Coogler hasn’t shed away from this material before with his debut Fruitvale Station tackling racial divides through the eyes of Oscar Grant in his final hours, but to put it in the confines of a comic book movie, and make it work this well is an impressive skill.
To give the film a slight criticism, the action scenes are good but not great, most of them have some obvious CGI, and it takes you out of the film. However, like I said earlier, this is a more personal journey for T’Challa, so the lack of physical excitement isn’t a killer. And there are some impressive scenes, the hunt for Klaue takes T’Challa to South Korea where a casino brawl – shown with a nice long-take across the casino floor – leads directly into a two-pronged car-chase across Busan. The hand-to-hand is good with a ritual combat fighting between T’Challa and Erik carrying a lot of weight behind it, their second battle is a little less impressive because of the sheer amount of CGI, but it’s still good to see these two face-off. The real highlight of the third act is an all out war between Erik’s forces and T’Challa’s soldiers, while there are some odd parts to it – battle rhinos being the main offender – the reasoning behind it and ultimately the impact it has regarding the message Coogler is showing, makes it a much stronger element, and by extension worst battle to witness.
There have been complaints calling Black Panther the first Black Superhero movie is ignoring the likes of Blade, Spawn, Steel, and Hancock that came before it – though I think ignoring 75% of those movies is best for everyone. But I disagree, while there have been superhero movies with a black lead, Black Panther could be the first Black Superhero movie with the racial identity tying so closely to the character and to the film. Coogler and Marvel have designed a film which challenges its audiences of – and I’m gonna generalize the comic-book movie crowd here – what is mostly white folk. Boseman, Wright, Nyong’o, and Jordan all stand out as strong characters with the warring beliefs of Boseman and Jordan providing a strong rivalry to carry the film’s message. I though the morally grey zone of Civil War would be the most mature Marvel ever went, but I was dead wrong, and I’ve never been happier to be so wrong.
I am giving Black Panther a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces