Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Film Review: Black Panther

I was worried that this movie had been over-hyped.  But to my pleasant surprise, the movie is quite excellent.

Black Panther is a solo film of the title character (played by Chadwick Boseman) set in the fictionalize African kingdom of Wakanda.  Because of a secret deposit of the extra-terrestrial metal known as vibranium, Wakanda has built a hidden kingdom that is more technologically advanced than any in the world.  Because of the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa (Boseman), must now ascend the throne of Wakanda.  He is accompanied often by his stalwart bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his technologically gifted sister Shuri (Letitia Wright),  and the love of his life: the Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o).  Together they pursue South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and meet up with CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).  This takes them on a path that leads them to cross paths with a foe named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has deep and unexpected ties to the Wakandan people.

Even though this character was introduced in a previous film, Black Panther is essentially an origin story and it has to carry with it all of the baggage that this entails.  But writer/director Ryan Coogler (along with fellow writer Joe Robert Cole) uses this as an opportunity to do a great deal of world-building.  Wakanda is a fascinating place.  Coogler creates a rich and ancient African mythology and crafts a world that imagines great technological advancements springing forth from this African culture.  The movie does an excellent job of blending not only the balance but the tension between tribal traditions and global modernization.  Wakanda keeps itself closed off from the world because the leaders know that they need to preserve culture.  But they are constantly being pulled to share their gifts to make the outside world a better place.  The inside of Wakanda feels like a Star Trek utopia, although we only really spend time with the royal family and not we do not get a good glimpse at the common Wakandan.

Having solidly framed the world, Coogler goes on to tell a very engaging story about leadership and responsibility.  Many have noted that the motivations of the villain are incredibly inteersting.  I have heard some reviewers say that Killmonger is more interesting than T'Challa.  On this point I disagree.  Early on someone tells T'Challa "You are a good man.  And it is hard for a good man to be king."  This, I think, is the heart of understanding his character.  I am always a fan of stories that attempt to make virtue interesting and attractive.  T'Challa is not perfect but he has a good heart and never waivers in his desire to do the right thing.  But making this person a political leader makes things very complicated.  Statecraft often involves secrets and spying.  You can see how an honest man like T'Challa is a bit lost in these waters.  And you can see how he looks to his father so worshipfully, but feels betrayed and disappointed when he learns his father's flaws.

The actors are all great.  Boseman carries the quiet strength and dignity that T'Challa needs without coming off as arrogant or bland.  Jordan is not in enough of the movie.  From the moment he steps on to the screen he exudes charisma.  He is a thugish, evil brute who somehow can garner your sympathy even in the midst of his violence.  Gurira's no-nonsense Okoye brings a great deal of fun as she lets her exacerbation show when in the presence of her inferiors.  Wright might come off as the annoying little sister to some, but I found her to be an energetic shot of youth into the film.  Freeman plays the competent fish-out-of-water in the movie and brings all of his everyman strengths.  And Serkis completely chews the scenery throughout the movie and is deliciously evil.  And all of the actors have great chemistry with each other as the different dynamics bring out different aspects of their personality.

Coogler's visual aesthetic is fun to watch.  There is a particular one-shot action sequences that is dizzying in the best way.  The movie is bold and colorful and is incredibly visually dynamic.  Comparisons to The Lion King may be unavoidable with its idealized African countryside and its thematic connections to fatherhood, revenge, and kingship.  The movie almost feels like a James Bond film, with Shuri as Q and Ross as Felix Leiter.  But it never moves too far from its superhero roots and it gives plenty of satisfying comic book action that had me smiling throughout.  The use of the Wakandan technology is unlike any other science fiction that I have seen, which gives it a unique flavor.

Returning again to the main villain, I found it to be an incredibly bold story choice.  Killmonger gives voice to the tidal anger of racial injustices.  But his social awareness leads him down a path of violence that the movie clearly condemns.  Black Panther celebrates African culture but takes care to take a stand against an ideology that would make any race superior to another.

Black Panther is a solid entry in the MCU that does not disappoint.

image by Yasier72.multan

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