Review: Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther' is Gorgeous, Engaging, and Culturally Significant
by Adam Frazier
February 16, 2018
Originally co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics, Black Panther made his first appearance in 1966's Fantastic Four #52. The first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, Black Panther debuted years before early black superheroes such as the Falcon (1969), John Stewart's Green Lantern (1971), Luke Cage (1972), and Blade (1973). Crossing racial and cultural lines, Black Panther has continued to resonate with readers over the years, spawning multiple publications, and appearing in numerous video games and animated series. It wasn't until 2016, however, that the iconic hero made his big screen debut. Included in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's massive fan base, setting the stage for this stand-alone feature film. Enter director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the eighteenth entry in Marvel's shared cinematic universe and, perhaps, the most absorbing and entertaining installment yet.
Co-written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), the film's story picks up after the events of Civil War. Following the death of King T'Chaka (John Kani) at the hands of Helmut Zemo, Prince T'Challa (Boseman) returns to the East African nation of Wakanda to assume the throne and the role of the nation's protector, the Black Panther. Hidden from the outside world, Wakanda is a technological wonder powered by the alien mineral vibranium - the same miraculous metal that Cap's shield is made of. Armed with superior technology developed by his whiz-kid sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), accompanied by spy and love interest, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the head of his elite all-female security force, Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa travels to South Korea to apprehend Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an illegal arms dealer (first seen in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron) who is selling vibranium on the black market.
In a thrilling sequence straight out of a globe-trotting espionage thriller, T'Challa and his crew infiltrate a luxe, high-stakes casino and dismantle Klaue's thugs with lethal efficiency. But before Black Panther can bring Klaue back to Wakanda, the one-armed arms dealer is rescued by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a formidable new foe equipped with deadly tactical skills and intimate knowledge of Wakandan history. When T'Challa returns home empty-handed, Killmonger takes advantage of the king's failure and appears at Wakanda’s border bearing gifts and a shocking revelation – one that allows him to challenge T’Challa for the right to the throne.
Black Panther is the first MCU movie to feature a black superhero as the title character. It isn't the first Marvel movie with that distinction, however. Wesley Snipes' Blade broke the color barrier in 1998, years before more popular Marvel properties like X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) made their big screen debuts. Still, there is plenty about Coogler's film that is culturally significant. Black Panther celebrates black excellence, and nearly every role – lead, supporting, or otherwise – is played by a talented black actor. Chadwick Boseman delivers a stoic, understated performance that anchors the film, allowing the rest of the cast to shine - especially the stunning, intelligent, and ferocious women of Wakanda. Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Danai Gurira (AMC's The Walking Dead), and newcomer Letitia Wright (Black Mirror) threaten to walk away with the whole movie while Michael B. Jordan, the star of Coogler's previous films Fruitvale Station and Creed, emerges as perhaps the most fully realized villain in a MCU film to date. Killmonger is the best kind of bad guy, one who you can empathize with – a victim of circumstance who believes he is doing the right thing, even if the entire world is telling him he's wrong.
The rest of Coogler's impressive ensemble does not disappoint. Angela Bassett (Queen Mother Ramonda), Forest Whitaker (Zuri), and Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi) bring their A-games, as do supporting players Winston Duke (M'Baku), and Martin Freeman (CIA Agent Everett K. Ross). It isn't just the performances that make Black Panther great, though. Coogler's slick, audacious directorial style, coupled with the crisp, vibrant, and soulful photography of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Mudbound) make Black Panther the rare film that finds a harmonious balance between substance and spectacle. The visuals are awe-inspiring, and the action sequences are thrilling because you care about the characters involved. Nothing feels flashy or over-the-top; everything is earned.
The bold, colorful world of Coogler's Black Panther melds traditional African aesthetics with futuristic flair. Production designer Hannah Beachler, costume designer Ruth Carter, special effects makeup designer Joel Harlow, and hair department head Camille Friend deserve recognition for their contributions here. These talented craftspeople captured the heart and soul of Wakanda and created an epic, immersive, and diverse cinematic world that will expose mainstream audiences to African culture and Afro-futurism. Like Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, Coogler's comic book movie will no doubt inspire the under-represented with its powerful depiction of a person of color who is not only a superhero, but also a leader who preaches empathy, understanding, and sincerity over cynicism and hatred. I'm sure it will be not only empowering but moving as well for black audiences everywhere to finally feel represented in this white-dominated, universally beloved genre. And that's important – it's important that everyone can see art that represents them, that speaks to them, and shows them that they can achieve things beyond their wildest dreams.
2017 was a landmark year for superhero cinema, with amazing films including The LEGO Batman Movie, Logan, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Thor: Ragnarok. As great as those films were, I'm not sure any of them are as vital or as brilliantly realized as Black Panther. It's Goldfinger, Star Wars, and The Godfather all rolled up into one gorgeous and engaging blockbuster that not only takes the MCU in an exciting new direction but cinema itself.
I loved this movie, and I'm excited to see more of these characters in more stories and further explore the fantastical, futuristic world of Wakanda. Luckily, we won't have to wait too long; the MCU's next entry, Avengers: Infinity War, hits theaters on May 4th this summer.
Adam's Rating: 5 out of 5
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