Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

Thousands of years ago, a meteorite containing vibranium crashed into the continent of Africa. The metal was quickly discovered to be a valuable resource, possessing the ability to leverage thermodynamics in absorbing, storing, and releasing kinetic energy. Realizing its great potential, five tribes warred against each other in an attempt to obtain the material. Through ingesting a heart-shaped herb affected by vibranium, one warrior gained superhuman abilities. Now known as the Black Panther, this warrior united the tribes, excluding the Jabari, to form the nation of Wakanda. In the centuries since, the Wakandans have used the vibranium to pursue countless scientific endeavors all while isolating themselves from the world by posing as a Third World country. In the present day, King T’Chaka of Wakanda has perished in battle, leaving his son, T’Challa, to inherit the Black Panther mantle. Though he intends to maintain the status quo with his reign, he may find this task impossible when a figure from his father’s past emerges from the shadows.

The idea for a Black Panther adaptation had been formed as early as June of 1992 when Wesley Snipes announced his intentions to make it. Dissatisfied with the common portrayal of Africa in Hollywood productions, Mr. Snipes wished to highlight the majesty of the continent and place it on the silver screen. By January of 1994, he began speaking with the executives of Columbia Pictures to portray the title character. Stan Lee, who had co-created the character, had joined the project by the following March. Two months later, the film entered early production. Unfortunately, problems caused production of the film to stall. Mr. Lee was not pleased with the scripts and Mr. Snipes said that the film’s title caused confusion, for the uninitiated believed it to be about the Blank Panther Party.

Over the next ten years, the film would be announced multiple times, yet nothing substantial ever resulted from it. The project had officially entered production hell. The figure most responsible for this development was Isaac Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Entertainment from 2005 to 2015, who believed a film not starting a white male in the lead role wouldn’t sell tickets. Fortunately for everyone involved, the project gained a new lease on life after Kevin Feige agreed to work on an Inhumans adaptation. Mr. Feige soon found himself elevated to a position in which he didn’t have to answer to Mr. Perlmutter anymore. Once he was, he shelved the Inhumans film and began producing Black Panther along with Captain Marvel. Mr. Perlmutter was then hilariously proven wrong when the film proceeded to make over $1.3 billion on a $210 million budget.

Black Panther begins with a simple enough premise. Black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue and his accomplice Erik Stevens have stolen a Wakandan artifact from a London museum and intend to sell it to CIA agent Everett K. Ross. Not wishing for the artifact to fall into the wrong hands, T’Challa follows them to Busan, South Korea where the exchange is to be made. In the ensuing fight, Ross is gravely wounded after taking a bullet for T’Challa’s ex-lover, Nakia. Though the wound is fatal, T’Challa takes Ross to Wakanda where their technology can save him.

This one act opens up a treasure trove of implications – all of which are pointed out by the villain of the scenario: Erik Stevens. His father was N’Jobu the brother of King T’Chaka. He planned to share Wakadan technology with those of African descent to help them fend off their oppressors. His plan was in direct violation of the laws of the land, but when T’Chaka attempt to arrest him, he attacked his comrade, Zuri, forcing the king to kill him on the spot. N’Jobu’s son then grew up to be a black ops solider who eventually adopted the name Killmonger. He then reveals his identity to be N’Jadaka, and challenges T’Challa for the right to rule.

Black Panther is the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though many film franchises consisted of several installments, the Marvel Cinematic Universe stood out in its consistency. Part of what allowed it to enjoy success over a decade after its inception was the sheer amount of stylistic ground it covered. While all of them are superhero films, facets from various other genres found their way into the individual installments. To wit, one could see historical drama, action, space opera, and heist elements in Captain America, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man respectively. Given the universe’s diversity, it’s not at all usual that Black Panther would touch upon racial issues.

Indeed, Killmonger is one of those villains that, even though he’s clearly in the wrong, you can see where he’s coming from. He is absolutely livid that his uncle killed his father and how for centuries, Wakanda has stood idly by as their fellow Africans endured tremendous hardships at the hands of European oppressors or domestic warlords. As the Marvel universe is typically stated to have a history identical to that of the real world unless stated otherwise, it can be inferred the highly racist Apartheid era occurred in South Africa. It’s not too much of an extrapolation given that the prologue set in 1992 takes place in N’Jobu’s Oakland apartment and the television is set to news footage covering the Rodney King riots. You get a sense of how he was as much of a victim of institutional racism many other African-American children at the time.

At the end of the day, however, Killmonger is revealed to be quite the hypocrite. His hatred of white people has more to do with believing that Wakanda, boasting a technological prowess centuries ahead of the rest of the Earth, has the right to rule the planet. In other words, he’s the kind of person who wants to perpetuate the conflict with his people as the dominators rather than reach a compromise and help bring it to an end. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the villain leaves an indelible impact on T’Challa, and the king establishes an outreach center where N’Jobu died after all is said and done.

Finally, it must be said that, as befitting a Marvel film, the fight scenes are top-notch. A sequence involving T’Challa leaping from car to car in Busan in particular stands out as one of the franchise’s finest action sequences. Not only that, but when he is fighting the two ceremonial succession battles, the director successfully lent them a visceral, gritty quality few other films in the franchise had. They really do have to be seen to be believed, and watching it unfold on the big screen was a treat.

Films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe had little difficulty amassing critical acclaim, yet even bearing in mind its excellent track record, Black Panther stood out. Critics had almost nothing but praise for it, and it proceeded to shock the Academy Award ceremony when it was nominated for Best Picture. Despite being one of the rare instances in the 2010s of critics and fans seeing eye-to-eye, few expected Black Panther to actually be nominated.

Taking this development at face value, it’s easy to get the impression that it was the film universe’s single greatest accomplishment. While I myself wouldn’t quite consider it the apex of the franchise, there’s no denying that it’s a solid film with excellent, charismatic performances. Best of all, it’s one of the very few 2010s films to feature both heavy science-fiction elements and insightful social commentary without expressing a supreme disdain for science or compromising the story’s ability to be a story. For all of those reasons and more, Black Panther is absolutely worth watching. Wesley Snipes may not have landed himself in the director’s chair, but his perseverance paid off in the end.

Final Score: 7/10

7 thoughts on “Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

  1. It seems you have been on an Academy Awards kick lately. If that’s the case, then so am I, because I spent a good part of the weekend going through the nominated movies.

    I hadn’t watched Black Panther until a couple of days ago, but I quite liked how the movie merged racial issues with Marvel’s superhero universe. That and the complexity of the villain – as you pointed out – shot it to the upper echelon of movies of the kind, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed I am. I intend to review every single film nominated for Best Picture. Once that’s done, I make a “From Best to Worst” list about them. The only one I have yet to see is Vice, which I’ve heard mixed things about. I’ve already reviewed Roma and The Favourite, so the next one I’ll talk about is A Star is Born.

      Anyway, I liked Black Panther a lot. I think a problem with films dealing with racial issues is that they don’t have much to offer outside of their messages. I want to make it absolutely clear that these are important messages, but when a story only exists for its message, it’s often rendered somewhat one-dimensional. Black Panther, by virtue of existing in a universe with a rich lore, averts this problem handily. While I don’t buy into that notion of a film only being as good as its villain, I do have to remark that Killmonger really helped sell the message. If you’re looking for other films from 2018 that managed to perform well on their own terms while also carrying a powerful message, I say check out The Hate U Give and Blindspotting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am looking forward to your From Bets to Worst list. I quite liked Vice. I am curious to see how you will evaluate that one.

        And I agree with you when you say that when a story only exists for the sake of the message it really hurts the movie.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I got hit with hype backlash hard with this film. After having heard so much so good for so long, I was expecting it to blow me away. But it didn’t. Still a good movie, butt it fell so far short of what I had expected that there’s an undue tinge of disappointment over all my memories of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly, that’s understandable. I myself wouldn’t quite consider it one of the greatest films ever made, and I think the critics were a little too excited for it. Still, at the end of the day, I would rather have them go crazy over films that, while not masterpieces, are still good overall than the boringly nihilistic fare they can’t seem to get enough of.

      Liked by 1 person

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