I have thoroughly enjoyed most of the films from the Marvel cinematic universe. They are mostly entertaining, exciting popcorn movies. Sometimes they are a bit thin in the plot department. Most of the time the villains are pretty one-dimensional. Marvel, however, has found a winning formula. It’s keeping the movie goers coming back for more.
With that said, I just have to say that Black Panther is the movie that Marvel fans have truly been waiting for. Before we go any further, I’m going to give fair warning right now: SPOILERS ARE AHEAD! If you have not yet seen Black Panther then I would advise that you read no further.
There are many things that make Black Panther stand out. There are many things that put this film a notch above the Marvel movies that have come before it. However, for me, the biggest thing is the world-building in this film. Marvel has attempted to world-build in all of it’s other movies but, in my opinion, they have fell short more often than not. Black Panther doesn’t just take us into Wakanda, it teaches us the culture of Wakanda. It shows us some of its time honored traditions, rituals, and beliefs.
One of these traditions, we get to see very early on in the film. Prince T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) returns home to Wakanda shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. He is to be crowned king in the wake of the death of his father. Before he can be crowned king though, he must face challengers to the throne from the 5 tribes that comprise Wakanda in one-on-one combat. He must do so without the enhanced powers that the purple heart-shaped herb grants the Black Panther. T’Challa ends up facing off against the leader of the Jabari tribe, M’baku. He is able to best M’baku and force him to yield (essentially tapping out).
Afterwards, T’Challa is taken for the next Wakandan ritual. T’Challa has to take a journey to the Wakandan spiritual plane, known as Djalia. This is done through the use of the same heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther his powers. It is during this journey that T’Challa convenes with his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers. He is able to speak with his father briefly who is happy to see him take his rightful place as the king.
Another nice piece of world-building is the brief history of Wakanda that we are given at the start of the film. It is explained that Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation in the world. This is all thanks to a meteor that crashed in the country hundreds of years ago. Within this meteor is a very rare metal called vibranium. If the name of this metal sounds familiar to you, it should. It’s the very same metal that Captain America’s shield is made from. The vibranium in the meteor interacted with the environment around it causing changes, including the creation of the purple heart-shaped herb.
Wakanda protects itself and its precious metal by shielding and disguising itself from the rest of the world. Wakanda has long maintained that they are a poor country of farmers that live in a nation that is so deep in the jungle in Africa that nobody really tries to venture to it. Only those that live there dare to venture into the jungle. Wakanda does not share it’s technology with anyone in the outside world and never lets on that they are very prosperous and advanced beyond most of the world’s comprehension.
Throughout the course of the film we are introduced to the many tribes that comprise Wakanda and the various purposes they serve. For example, during fly overs we can see one of the local tribes on the outskirts of Wakanda herding animals and farming. This is all, of course, part of the ruse. These are no mere farmers. They are actually the border guards. The blankets they wear not only keep them warm but they also hide weaponry. Vibranium is woven into the cloth of these blankets and from that they can produce powerful shields. Oh, and those animals they are raising…those are actually armored rhinos.
We are also introduced early on to the Dora Milaje. The Dora Milaje are a team of bad ass women that are Wakanda’s equivalent of special forces. They fight better than most of the men in the film. They fight with honor. The film follows specifically one Dora Milaje named Okoye (played terrifically by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame). She accompanies T’Challa on several missions, even saving T’Challa a few times. The Dora Milaje are fiercely loyal to whomever sits on the throne of Wakanda.
Another reason this film is a cut above the rest is because Marvel finally gave us a villain that wasn’t one-dimensional. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan), who’s real name is N’Jadaka, is the son of Wakandan royalty. His father, N’Jobu, was the brother to King T’Chaka. N’Jobu was sent to America as a member of Wakanda’s spy agency, the War Dogs. The racial injustices that he witnesses in his time in America make make him realize that Wakanda can help the plight of people of African descent all over the world. However, T’Chaka won’t hear of it. Wakanda wants to retain its secrets and sense of isolationism. So, N’Jobu assists Ulysses Klaue in a daring raid on Wakanda’s vibranium supply. He intends to sell the vibranium to purchase weapons that he can hand out to the people so they can fight for their equality. T’Chaka discovers this and goes to America to confront N’Jobu about this. In the confrontation, T’Chaka ends up killing N’Jobu. He then leaves America and N’Jobu’s young son, Erik, behind. Erik discovers his father’s dead body in their apartment and shortly thereafter discovers his father’s diary.
Erik grows up and ends up joining the Navy SEALs. He goes straight to Afghanistan from there and ends up racking up a lot of kills. He ends up calling himself Killmonger as a result. He eventually is recruited into a Black Ops team where he starts to give himself tribal “crocodile” like scarring on his body for each kill he makes. Eventually, he begins his conquest of Wakanda. He wants to kill T’Challa as revenge for the death of his father. He wants to rule Wakanda so that he can use Wakanda’s vast technological and defensive superiority to help people of African descent have a chance to take the power for themselves and overcome their oppressors.
Black Panther delivers on substance and not just visual appeal. Director Ryan Coogler effortlessly weaves into the story hard hitting current issues such as race and isolationism along with the super hero action adventure tale. The film doesn’t try to provide easy answers to such complicated issues. Instead, these issues serve as the crux for the central conflict of the film. Should Wakanda stay steeped in tradition and not involve itself with issues of racial and economic inequality that effect the world outside? Should Wakanda take a hard stance and use it’s technology and weaponry to help equalize the playing field? The film offers the suggestion that the best way forward to try to resolve these issues is found through understanding, education, and providing strong leadership.
The cast is overall terrific. I think, at times, Andy Serkis chews up the scenery with his over the top portrayal of Ulysses Klaue but I can excuse that because the rest of the cast is so good. Michael B. Jordan, for me, is the standout of this film. In his role as Killmonger he evokes a sense of deep sadness, anger, and resolve. His performance really helps to make the character feel more real and not just another cookie-cutter Marvel villain. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther is mostly quiet and introspective. He portrays the quiet confidence of the ruler of a country that is trying to grow and change. I also enjoyed Letitia Wright who plays T’Challa’s sister Shuri. Shuri is portrayed as a genius and technology guru. Wright plays her with a child-like glee that is infectious and often humorous.
If I have any complaints about the film, it is in the way that the villains are treated. Marvel has a terrible time with deciding what to do with their villains. In nearly every Marvel film, the villain dies (with the notable exception of Loki). Black Panther is no exception. Why can’t Marvel keep their villains alive and let them be present from film to film? First, we see the death of Ulysses Klaue (and in a very cheap way I might add). Yes, Klaue was in Avengers: Age of Ultron but he is in the film sparsely and used as sort of a throw away henchman to Ultron. Klaue, again, is playing second fiddle in Black Panther but this time it is to Killmonger. Klaue gets some cool moments using his cybernetic hand to deal out some damage. However, he goes out with nary a whimper when Killmonger unceremoniously shoots him dead in order to use his death to get in the good graces of the Wakandans.
Then there’s the death of Killmonger. T’Challa kills him by stabbing him in the chest with a vibranium knife after an extended fight sequence between he and Killmonger. Killmonger is left gasping for air and admiring T’Challa for making the move that dealt the fatal blow. He mentions that his dad had long promised to take him to Wakanda to show him its beauty. T’Challa chooses to show some mercy and help Killmonger to his feet and then takes him outside on a cliff that overlooks Wakanda at dusk. It truly is a beautiful moment and we’re given a moment of hope that maybe Killmonger might live. T’Challa offers to take Killmonger to be healed but Killmonger refuses in a powerful moment and dies on the cliff. What a shame. Killmonger is the rare Marvel film villain that isn’t one-dimensional. It would have been nice to see him return in future films.
Black Panther is a film that celebrates diversity and seeks to drive home a more important point than just good conquers evil. It seeks to try and offer a way that we might be able to come together and solve issues of racial inequality. It’s a powerful message especially in the turbulent and uncertain times we live in. It is worth every dime of the money you pay to see it. If Marvel keeps cranking out movies that have a real heart and soul like this, they can just keep right on taking my money.
Black Panther might just be the best of the Marvel movies so far. I highly recommend it.