[SPOILERS, but come on, you've seen this one already, right?]
You are a good man with a good heart. It is hard for a good man to be king.
The slums of Oakland, 1992. A group of black boys play basketball with a makeshift hoop of a milk crate attached to a slab of wood when an impossible sight appears -- a hoverjet floats above the dilapidated buildings where they live, landing on one. Inside the building, it is soon revealed the hoverjet carried King T'Chaka of Wakanda, here to confront his brother on a betrayal...
A quarter of a century later - hidden away in the depths of Africa, the city of Wakanda appears to outsiders to be just another third world country. But this is a front - it's actually the most advanced nation on earth, which protects its' people by being ruthlessly isolationist. In the wake of T'Chaka's death, his son, T'Challa, takes up the mantle of king -- and Black Panther, a warrior powered by both the natural powers of a mystical plant, and a suit built of Vibranium, the most Unobtaniumish Unobtanium of them all. To the outside world, only a tiny handful is known, much of it in Captain America's shield. Wakanda is built on great masses of it.
T'Challa immediately faces both a grave political question -- whether to ensure the protection of his people through his father's isolationism, or to step out into the world with the advanced technology, and raise it to new heights. This question is made more urgent due to the machinations of arms dealer Klaue, which are merely the prelude to a challenge to T'Challa's power and the very nature of Wakanda: Eric "Killmonger" Stevens, aka N'Jadaka, the son of T'Chaka's dead brother.
Rarely are blockbusters are richly layered and as lovingly made as Black Panther. Even on the surface, it's on another level entirely from the other Marvel films. Wakanda is absolutely stunning -- one of the greatest feats of cinematic fantasy. After decades of big-budget sci-fi depicting all manner of technology, it's difficult to do something really impressive, but every corner of Wakanda is something wonderful and special. From the grand, Afro-futurist architecture; to the vibrant costumes, each meticulously crafted to be both traditional and futuristic and to tell entire stories about the characters wearing them; to all the gadgets created by Leticia Wright's Shuri, everything fulls the eyes and imagination. All this is spectacularly captured by Rachel Morrison's cinematography and supported by Ludwig Goransson's score, fusing a wide variety of African percussion with the sweeping orchestral themes of the great superhero scores. It's crazy cool, is what I'm getting at. This is world-building on the level of Star Wars, Blade Runner, Tim Burton's Gotham, or Lord of the Rings.
None of these wonders overwhelm the characters. Ryan Coogler has assembled not just a great hero and villain, but an ensemble of awesome characters. Leading the pack, obviously, is Chadwick Boseman as the title character. Boseman has the regal presence necessary to buy his royal power, the physicality to sell the superheroic stuff, and the humanity and humor to ground the grander elements. T'Challa deals with great internal conflict throughout the story, understandable given the weight thrust upon him. But he also carries that weight with aplomb. However dishonorably his foes act, he always acts with honor. The challenge of being both a good man and king is one he accepts and fights through.
The film stands out from much of the MCU with a series of great female characters, with varied personalities, emotional complexities, and powers, instead of the one or two most seem to feature. Lupita Nyong'o plays Nakia, a spy impassioned about helping those in need; she very much believes Wakanda should use its technology to aid the world in the face of the more cautious conservatism most prefer by tradition. She also serves as T'Challa's love interest, but she's never reduced to that, having her own drive and story throughout. Danai Gurira, formerly best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, creates an even more iconic role for herself in Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's special forces and royal bodyguards. Her patriotic pride and sense of duty drive her, even when it goes against her heart, leading to both great deeds and personal tragedy. Where Nakia immediately and without reservation prepares to fight Killmonger, Okoye upholds her duty as bodyguard, in a powerful sequence where both women make opposite choices that are inspiring in their own ways. Elsewhere, Letitia Wright is delightful as Shuri, T'Challa's fun-loving techie sister, effectively his Q. And Angela Bassett is as immensely regal as Ramonda, the Queen Mother, as you would expect.
Elsewhere, the great Martin Freeman virtually defines CIA agent / token white guy Everett K. Ross with his exaggerated American accent, a likeable guy who wants to do the right thing but is also, you know, CIA, and so has to balance that with his own agenda. Daniel Kaluuya, probably soon to be everywhere, is able to sketch out the complex motivations of W'Kabi with only a few brief scenes; his crucial decision to betray T'Challa feels earned and understandable, and the credibility of this conflict lends extra power to already strong scenes. And a non-mocapped, live-action Andy Serkis has the time of his life in a mustache-twirling fakout villain for the ages; Ulysses Klaue is an irredeemable bastard, knows it, and revels in it.
But it's the lead villain who truly gives the film its heart and power. Killmonger doesn't just have a point; he's basically right about everything that drives him. His anger at the systemic oppression still lingering in America, at Wakanda's refusal to do anything about the perpetual horrors of colonialism and racism in order to protect themselves, and at T'Chaka for killing his father and leaving him behind without a word, are all impossible to argue with. It's in his deadly methods that he goes wrong. This is a broken man who could have been great with anything to redirect the anger into building instead of tearing down. But his fury drives him merely to destroy everything broken in the world. He wants to turn the colonizing countries into colonies, oppressing the oppressors, sowing violent vengeance on a global scale. To him, the world must pay for what it's done, and it will pay in oceans of blood. This complexity makes him both threatening and sympathetic, and T'Challa is genuinely challenged, moved, and changed by him, even as he fights against his methods.
Michael B. Jordon, swaggering with a slight limp that somehow makes the swagger even cooler, exudes dangerous charisma and passion. Goransson underscores him with a dark, relentlessly rising theme above chaotic percussion, giving his every moment onscreen both menace and a certain inspirational power to match Jordan's own power and menace. His approach to the throne, with a camera rotating from upside-down to right, is a knockout moment of imagery. Killmonger ranks as the finest of the MCU villains, and a classic in any category.
And this, combined with the complex motivations, emotions, and decisions of the ensemble, makes for a tremendously compelling experience. The themes of responsibility vs. safety, of how to deal with the atrocities of the past and of the present, of the ugly destructiveness of untempered anger, and of the wonders a peaceful, united society can create, are all dramatized through character and the world.
Ryan Coogler makes this mass blockbuster every bit as personal and heartfelt as his indie debut Fruitvale Station and the remarkably strong Creed. Oakland and Wakanda alike are grand expressions of identity, both the harsh realities and a utopia that doesn't feel so out of reach in concept, however far ahead its' technology itself may be. It feels like a place that should have existed, could have existed, and, perhaps, still could, if humanity chooses it.
On top of all that, the action is icing. The first fight goes for a bit of a Batman Begins thing, sacrificing clarity for a sense of power beyond a normal person's understanding; it's fine. But the action quickly picks up with a beautiful mano-a-mano fight in the midst of a series of waterfalls. Then Coogler kicks off the second act in pure James Bond mode for a South Korea sequence that, after an appropriately suave buildup, delivers a thrilling multi-tier brawl largely captured in one roving take, which then becomes and exhilarating gadget car chase like even the Bond series hasn't managed. Even better is the end of the second act, when T'Challa and Killmonger face off in the waterfalls. This is a great fight - intense, powerful, and spectacular.
The film climaxes with a wild battle sequence involving everything from a hovercraft chase to battle rhinos to T'Challa and Killmonger's rematch, first falling through a massive chasm, and then with their Panther suits malfunctioning. The sheer spectacle doesn't make for quite as strong a punch as those two earlier set-piece highlights, but every character gets a strong payoff here, and you can't go wrong with battle rhinos.
The true emotional climax comes at the end, as T'Challa shows the dying Killmonger Wakanda's sunset from a perfect vantage point.Killmonger could be healed by Wakanda's technology, but, true to form, he refuses.
Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage.Killmonger is driven by pain and anger, both positively and negatively. Facing what he sees as a symbol of all the oppression he's fought against, he chooses to die on his own terms. The man driven only by passion and anger thus burns out. But the changed T'Challa now accepts the risks of revealing Wakanda to the world, so their utopia can become the world's utopia.
Because it's the movie of the zeitgeist, it's easy to dismiss the film's praise as being more for its' sheer existence. Equally, it's easy to understate Black Panther's superiority in the genre simply because of the fatigue from the oversaturation of the genre. But neither reaction is truly warrented. This fusion of complex drama, epic melodrama, and fun action yarn ends as perhaps the most hopeful and inspiring superhero film yet devised. If, in its' sheer staggering ambition a few subplots and relationships feel a touch under-developed - likely Marvel's fault rather than Coogler's, as he was apparently forced to cut several scenes late in production - it still reaches those ambitions on the whole. It won't surprise me if there's an even better director's cut down the line that fleshes some minor points out more fully, but even as it stands, this is one of the highest points the genre has ever scaled.
Although if there's one flaw that does actually bother me, it's the UN scene being the mid-credits scene. I'm sorry, in the middle of the credits, all your dramatic momentum is lost. This is fine for throwaway bits like teasers or gags, but when if it's the closing moment of the actual story, put it in the damn movie, not after it.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Producer: Kevin Feige
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and a handful of profanities.
Budget: $200 million
Box Office: A zeitgeist monster that's still raging. It's passed The Avengers at over $630 million, on its way to around $675 million domestically, and with $1.2 billion worldwide.
One other little thing - not really a flaw, per se, just an odd touch - but Wakanda, for all its equality overall, seems to still have an ancient patriarchal structure at the top. As far as I can tell, there's never been a reigning queen or Black Panther. This is largely balanced out by the women having great power regardless, but it does get a little weird in the third act, when Nakia and Shuri believe Black Panther is dead, and never for a moment consider taking the magic herbs for themselves.
Also, the kings being chosen and holding their power by ritual combat? Yeah, no way that's ever resulted in some strongman jerkface terrorizing the country and riding the economy into the ground.
My point being, Wakanda is cool, but it could use a couple lessons from Themyscira.