Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker
Rated: PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Marvel Studios debuted their Cinematic Universe (referred to as the MCU) ten years ago with “Iron Man.” Their first film out this year, “Black Panther” gives newcomers to the MCU a way into that setting without requiring them to go watch the previous 17 films (and 10 TV series!) first. This is an iconic film, one well worth watching whether you like superheroes or not. It breaks new ground in cinema, and that alone makes it worth checking out – but it’s also a really good movie.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of Wakanda, a hidden nation in the heart of Africa that was never colonized. They have developed amazing technology thanks to living above a massive deposit of vibranium, a very rare metal that powers their tech and can be used to make amazing things. The outside world thinks Wakanda is a 3rd world nation of poor farmers, and they are careful to make sure nobody outside learns the truth.
The conflict at the heart of “Black Panther” is whether or not the policy of hiding Wakanda from the world is the right thing to do. They have stood by as fellow Africans were conquered and enslaved, as America continues to mistreat and destroy Black lives and families, as people all over the world are oppressed. Erik (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan by birth but raised in Oakland, CA, has spent his life becoming the best and most skilled warrior he can be for one purpose: to go to Wakanda and challenge the king to ritual combat. The winner of that combat will be king, and if Erik wins, he can send weapons to oppressed people all over the world, effectively arming a coup in any country that has a group of people it treats poorly.
It’s an understandable goal, and that gives Erik something few other comic-book-movie villains have: the audience’s empathy. The film is careful to make Erik definitely a bad guy – he doesn’t care about tradition, about complex decisions, about the people who will die in the wars he is planning to start. But still. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from, and that helps make T’Challa’s struggle to decide how to react even more powerful.
The characters are complex and relatable, the actors playing them all turn in good performances. The only significant weakness with the acting is the accent work of Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman. Serkis is busy chewing enough scenery that his attempt at a South African accent isn’t too awful. Freeman does okay with his middle-America accent, but folks used to his British accent will likely have trouble getting used to it coming out of his face.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. There’s a massive variety of clothing styles and hair styles, all of them drawn from African culture. The capital where most of the film takes place is a futuristic wonderland heavily informed by African architecture and futurist ideas. It’s a vision of the future built on a different foundation than the sci-fi visions Hollywood has previously brought us.
This is a film well worth seeing. If you find it impossible to take science-fiction seriously, it might not be for you, but otherwise? See it. I bet you’ll like it. Even if you don’t, you’ll have seen something unprecedented in cinema.