The latest Black Panther and newly crowned king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is faced with a challenge right after taking the throne: The ruthless arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is meeting a buyer in an underground casino in South Korea with a Wakandan artifact made from vibranium. T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) urges him to capture Klaue and bring him back to Wakanda to face trial for his crimes including W’Kabi’s parents’ murder. T’Challa, his former lover and Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and head of the all-female bodyguards for Wakandan kings known as the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira) go to South Korea in an effort to capture Klaue. There they discover the buyer of the artifact is CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). After a violent car chase through the streets of Busan, Klaue is finally captured; however, not long after he is broken out of agent Ross’ custody by Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). During his time serving with US Special Forces he picked up the nickname Killmonger due to the ease and efficiency with which he took enemy lives. There is a connection between T’Challa and Killmonger that could upset the peace and security of Wakanda and the rest of the world.
The pressure on writer and director Ryan Coogler to make a great “Black Panther” movie must have been intense. Not only is this the biggest budget film of his career, it also is the first superhero film to feature a lead character (and most of the cast) that is a person of color. “Black Panther” also has the added burden of being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) where audiences expect the movies to not only be good but fit in with the rest of the continuity established by the 17 previous films. It is a responsibility that must have kept Coogler up at night. All that lost sleep and stress was worth it as “Black Panther” is a great addition to the MCU. It also gives a level of legitimacy to a film genre that is often looked at as being of lesser importance when compared to dramas that usually don’t involve super powered people.
The world of “Black Panther” is one of the best and most fully developed of all the MCU. The film provides a quick history of the mythical African nation of Wakanda before showing us why and how the rest of the world is unaware of the technological marvels the country has produced. The reason for the secrecy is to protect Wakanda’s people from those that would try to invade the country and steal its natural resources, namely the magical metal called vibranium. There’s a scene in the film that supports the idea of foreigners taking from other cultures what doesn’t belong to them. The Wakandan city that is shown is a mixture of modern structures with natural elements incorporated within them. There are also people that live outside the city in a natural setting in homes made from the surrounding elements. The scenic design of Wakanda is a nice mixture of slick modern buildings and modest homes along with a high-tech mining operation that appears to be mostly automated. There is obviously a great deal of care taken to give the fictional country a fantastic but believable appearance.
“Black Panther” also finds the right mix of drama and humor. The interplay between characters never feels forced. While we are told these characters have known each other for years, it actually seems they have. There is an ease to the interactions between T’Challa and his sister, the technical genius Shuri (Leticia Wright). It’s playfulness with a tinge of competitiveness that often comes out in gentle teasing and the occasional obscene gesture. Danai Gurira’s Okoye and T’Challa have a friendly but professional relationship that feels rooted in deep respect. Okoye is a proud warrior and willing to lay down her life to protect the King. There’s a fierceness to Gurira’s performance that makes her electric to watch. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia has a deep emotional connection to T’Challa despite their love affair having ended. She also has a commitment to fight injustice no matter where that may be found and believes Wakanda should do more to fight for freedom of the oppressed.
Fighting oppression is a theme that runs through “Black Panther” and is part of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. What method to take is the main issue. I believe this, along with the groundbreaking nature of the film, is why it is so strongly resonating with audiences across racial and economic lines. The crowd in the showing I watched was incredibly diverse in terms of color and age. I’ve never seen more elderly people at a movie and certainly never at a superhero film. Families of various ethnicities were sitting together and enjoying the film. It was an amazing sight. I hope the success of the film will help diminish the idea that movies featuring primarily people of color don’t make money at the box office. It doesn’t hurt that “Black Panther” is part of the massive MCU; however, the wide age range of the audience shows if the movie is seen as treating its audience with respect and honesty, a broad cross-section of people will come to see it.
Clearly I loved the movie but there is one complaint I have regarding Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue: He wasn’t used enough. This is the second MCU film he’s been a part of, the first being “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In “Black Panther” Serkis has been let off the leash. Klaue is a maniac with little to no fear when face to face with T’Challa as Black Panther. He’s a whirling dervish of evil and one-liners. His personality is much more upbeat and he clearly enjoys being a bad guy. Serkis is of course best known for his motion capture work as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and as Supreme Leader Snoke in the last two “Star Wars” movies. His use in the MCU has been brief and unsatisfying until the out-of-control Klaue was set loose to create havoc. That said, we need more Klaue and it seems unlikely we’re going to get him. Without spoiling anything it appears, short of some kind of special Wakandan magic that Klaue is not coming back for any more appearances. This makes me more than a little sad. I’m sure Serkis who recently released his first directorial effort called “Breathe” and is putting the finishing touches on his take of The Jungle Book called “Mowgli” to be released later this year has plenty on his plate to keep him busy; but I will miss him chewing the scenery as Klaue.
“Black Panther” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action violence and a brief rude gesture. There is a car chase where several vehicles are destroyed. We see a couple of people get shot. A couple of flying vehicles are blown up. Black Panther and Killmonger engage in hand-to-hand combat on a couple of occasions. T’Challa also fights another person in ritual combat to take the throne. He is stabbed a couple of times and gets thrown off a very high waterfall. Another character is stabbed in the chest. The rude gesture is a middle finger raised. Foul language is scattered and mild.
The stakes are raised in “Black Panther” in a way that feels more honest and satisfying than in other MCU films. While the safety and security of the world are at stake as in most MCU films this time it seems far more important and real. Perhaps the real oppression of ethnic and religious minorities in the US and around the world make this story hit home a bit more realistically. Whatever the reason, “Black Panther” has raised the bar for the superhero genre and for film in general. It’s time to open our eyes to movies from and about people of color the same way we do with films from and about people that look like me.
“Black Panther” gets five stars.
This week there are three new films coming to a multiplex near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
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