T’Challa succeeds his father as king to the fictitious African nation of Wakanda. But life on the throne barely lasts a minute before outsiders challenge his right to rule. Oh and, he’s a superhero. Cinema has its first official black superhero. (Yes, Halle Berry was Catwoman, but the original character was white. Also …kind of a villain. Spawn, and even Blade were also anti-heroes). The Black Panther character has already become a real-life hero before the film has even hit theatres worldwide.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther creates a world of intrigue. Moody low lighting with bursts of color. Jay Hart (set design), Alan Hook (supervising art director), and especially Rachel Morrison (director of photography), make Africa look like Tatooine. Artistic, abstract fantasy animation offers an opening sequence that proves the CG team is capable. Things morph into one another to tell the story of Vibranium – the mightiest of metals and the basis of Wakanda’s power. It’s unfortunate that the CG is uneven. Some is very well done, but at times it’s very obvious there were green screens and computer-plotted figures on impossible-to-stand-on landscapes.
It is also unsettling and therefore a little bit chuckle-worthy to see alien spacecraft flying over unadulterated African landscape. It’s incongruous and a bit ridiculous, but if we can forgive Stan Lee’s silliness in the creation of the original storyline, we can then move on to more important elements.
The costumes. The ensemble cast. The script.
Coogler kept Marvel’s penchant for cheesy lines from their original animated series and comic books, but didn’t quite bring it to a witty or even terribly funny fruition. The best of the jokes lie within T’Challa’s relationship with his younger sister. It’s admirable sibling teasing, but could have been a bit less stilted. That said, his sister (played by Letitia Wright) is probably the highest point in the cast of characters. A tip of the hat also goes to Forest Whitaker for his supporting role. He is too cool as Zuri. Chadwick Boseman portrays the Panther himself. Well done! He is understated and stoic when needed, and becomes a serious protector and fighter in the face of adversity. Props also go to everyone’s soon-to-be new favorite villain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He is an excellent actor, and shows the rage of an irrational, angry character as well as the softer side of someone hurt by the society he was raised in.
If we were to compare and contrast with the 2010 Black Panther animated series, both have a star-studded cast, great music, are politically pertinent, and have a dark ambiance punctuated by bright colors. This is where the similarities end. The cartoon had killer artwork and flat-out blasted the sociopolitical and racial commentary at its audience. Its wit and comedic timing were perfect. The 2018 incarnation lags behind, taking a rather safe route. Its flashy action sequences and strong, badass female warriors do not save it from this. There are two sides to Coogler’s offering. On the one hand, there are some very interesting sets, techy and artsy elements, lovely scenery, and a heartfelt story about family. On the other side, there is an obvious political message. In a way, the two are independent of one another in terms of whether the film stands on its own. Most general audiences will probably love Coogler’s voice. Film buffs on the other hand, might nitpick many aspects that don’t quite hold up.
Black Panther may be the most highly anticipated Marvel Universe feature of all time. But does it deserve the hype? The good things about it will likely be good in every viewer’s opinion. Will anyone really care to focus on creative criticisms or cinematic value? When a film is released to certain hype that is a direct mirror of the state of the world, most audiences will praise it unless it is handled in poor taste. Coogler did the right thing, even if the technical aspects might be a little lacking. To those intensely involved with the political meaning and virtues of this story, no injustice was done. It is politically current without being excessive. It treats race and culture adequately without worsening their image. Whether these elements have been raised to a new level of praise, well, no. There is nothing revolutionary here, but the characters and politics are fairly treated in a way that doesn’t further demean or call for attacks from either side of the political fence. Black Panther advocates and upholds equality for the entire human race. African Americans might support this film for how it compliments a race without pretending the stereotypes don’t exist. There is something relatable especially in Killmonger’s upbringing. Non-black audiences may not change their minds about black culture, for either better or worse. If their political standpoint is that all people are people, they might see this as just another superhero film with cool dudes in suits. If they are at all politically inclined and aware, they might applaud Black Panther. And if they are politically gauche, they will either continue to be gauche, or hopefully learn a thing or two that might change their outlook on different cultures.
Black Panther hits theatres Nationwide February 16th. Make sure to stay for the end credits or you’ll miss the postmortem and hints of what’s next in the Marvel series.