‘I’ ON CULTURE
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of the most hyped movies ever, with some critics falling all over themselves to give it raves, often for political reasons. Is it as good as they say? It comes awfully close. This is a superb movie, one of the very best in the very good Marvel universe.
Coogler, who not only directed but co-wrote the film with Joe Robert Cole, adds the power of Greek tragedy, often focused on family power struggles, and current world problems, to a superhero film and comes out with a major winner.
T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda as its probable new king after the death of his father (seen in Captain America: Civil War). After a challenge from M’Baku (Winston Duke) based on traditional hand to hand fighting, he wins and becomes the king, using part of the process to visit his father in a dream.
Wakanda is a special place because far back in history, it was hit by a meteor of almost pure vibranium, the most powerful element on planet (it is what makes Captain America’s shield so valuable) and has become very rich and technologically advanced, although it pretends to be poor to keep outsiders away. T’Challa has the full support of the Dora Milice, a female army led by ferocious Okoye (Danai Gurira), superspy and lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and brilliant sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is a technology genius. There is a group of male leaders, particularly W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who favors providing Wakandan technology to the poor of the world, and Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who prefers keeping outsiders away.
Right from the start there are issues. South African Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) steals a vibranium weapon from a British museum but is captured in Korea after a great chase scene. He is rescued by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who retrieves the weapon and goes to Wakanda, challenging T’Challa for the throne. It seems he is the Black Panther’s cousin, whose father was killed by T’Challa’s father for being a traitor. And at that point, the family battle really goes crazy, leading to some great action, a few good laughs and a lovely ending.
The cast is fantastic, every one of them. Standing out is Okoye as probably the toughest fighter around. Wright, a true charmer, steals just about every scene she is in. Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother and Nyong’o as his spy/adviser/love interest are excellent.
One of the standout elements of this film is the strength of the women. In the rest of the Marvel universe, it is the men who lead the way. Yes, there is the Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, but they always seem to be supporting players to the big, tough men. Here, the women play a major role, far stronger than in just about any other superhero film. Perhaps Wonder Woman was just the first. Here, the women are real, smart and tough. I particularly liked Wright, as the brilliant but not nerdish, sister.
But Jordan towers above even the rest of the superb cast. Coogler portrays him not as a villain but an anti-hero. He is a product of a lot of bad things and wants to change the world, even if he has a few worries about the damage done along the way. His charisma is so strong that it explains why even a few of T’Challa’s advisers were willing to work with him. Boseman had the harder task: Being good does not lead to nearly as much excitement. Moderation can be boring. But he handles the fight scenes well and had a wonderful dignity.
The sets and costumes are superb. Coogler and his people have created a brilliant new country with its African traditions, and that is just part of the backstory. There is no complicated reason given for the importance of the strong women; it just is fact.
There has been a lot of talk about the significance of the movie for black people. Since I am not one of them, all I can say is, yes, black people will find a lot to love in the film. But within a couple of minutes, I was not even thinking of the cast as black or African but simply as people. This film transcends race into a matter of humanity.
Should you see this? Oh, yes. This is one of the really standout films of recent years. I already am waiting for the sequel. So far, it is the best of the year, and it might stay that way.