Black Panther (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Blackness of “Black Panther” will rub some people the wrong way, for no good objective reason other than the personal variety, but it is exactly why I loved the film, both as a superhero film and as a picture that proudly represents persons of color, black or otherwise. Although superhero movies often feature action-packed sequences set in African or Asian countries, the sub-genre is often told through the white lens in order to appeal to the common masses. So-called representation is relegated to foreign texts on billboards of futuristic-looking cities or a black extra reacting to wild goings-on—often solely for mere comedic effect.
And so this is one of the central reasons why Ryan Coogler’s film is worth seeing: people of color and where they live are not utilized as decoration. Rather, they are placed front and center so that the audience is confronted by colored faces, colored lives, colored lifestyles. We get to taste the specific flavors of a fictional Wakandan culture. For instance: their rituals prior to and during the coronation of a new leader; how they relate to one another on personal and professional levels; what is important to them as individuals and as a unit; their opinions and goals regarding how to build a better relationship with the rest of the world given that the latter is less technologically advanced and leading nations have a tendency toward maintaining the cycle of oppression especially toward people of color.
Clearly a standout from other Marvel outings, I enjoyed how the film actively builds an aura of intrigue rather than simply going through yet another episode in which a special item must be acquired from the wrong hands in order to defeat the villain of the day. This is most apparent during the first act. It is interesting that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) already knows who he is with or without the Black Panther costume. And so we avoid going through the same beats and rhythms—thereby the same trappings—that have become the norm from the genre. Instead, characters worth paying attention to and understanding are introduced: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the undercover spy, Okoye (Danai Gurira) the loyal warrior, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) the brilliant inventor. One can construct an argument that these strong individuals elevate the protagonist because they challenge him in their own ways.
There is beauty in color. For instance, notice articles of clothing and how they vary depending on each tribe of Wakanda. When there is cause for celebration, shades of red and yellow dominate coupled with ostentatious angular patterns. When there is a professional meeting, cooler colors like blue or green are employed. Patterns become less noticeable while finer textures move to the forefront. An exception, perhaps most appropriately because they are considered to be the outcast of the five Wakandan tribes, is the Jabari (led by M’Baku played with great charm by Winston Duke). Their costumes are dominated by more neutral colors like gray and brown. The styles and textures of their clothes lean toward more simple designs. The visual diversity is intoxicating; there is almost always something worthy to inspect.
But since the picture is an action film, does it deliver the goods? Indeed it does. While wall-to-wall action is not at play here, I found its restraint most admirable. It is equally capable of talking about ideas, at times relating to issues plaguing America today, and providing thrilling and entertaining sequences. A standout takes place in the streets of Busan, South Korea as Black Panther and his colleagues must get their hands on an infamous arms dealer (Andy Serkis, a joy to watch) and bring him back to Wakanda for trial. Meanwhile, our heroes have not yet an inkling that the real threat is the man, appropriately named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the arms dealer has chosen to align himself with.
“Black Panther” commands a freshness that numerous superhero films do not possess. It reminded me of James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” in how nearly every scene is intoxicating both in terms of content and visuals, its wonderful ability to balance humor and dramatic personal stakes, and how it opens up a world of possibilities. Credit to the writers, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, for an intelligent screenplay. Notice how the essence of just about every scene manages to flow into the next one. It establishes a sense of cohesion. Ryan Coogler, a name to take note and remember because his resulting projects so far have been of high caliber. I look forward to what he can do next.