Black Panther isn’t a movie; it’s a movement. That’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of in the past few days and it will only continue in the ramp up to the debut of the first Black superhero solo film since Blade. It’s a movie that has a ton of pressure on it, but the film handles it and delivers a fascinating and fun time at the movies.
The story of Black Panther sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assume the mantel of King at perhaps the most uneasy time in Wakanda’s history. Klaw (Andy Serkis) has been running around trying to sell Wakandan weapons, but back at home, it appears there are challengers to his throne at every turn and enough dissent to question his every choice. When an extraction mission with his general (Danai Guira) and ex/spy (Lupita Nyong’o) goes awry, he finds out that there are bigger things to worry about: like Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who presents a unique threat to his role as king and Black Panther. Not only does he wrestle with him, he must also face the destiny of his people and their place in the world.
The bad things first, Black Panther is a movie that is both structurally sound and a bit unwieldy. For a movie that clocks in at under two and a half hours, it felt long. It’s not as though the length isn’t filled with good detail but the train takes a while to get to where it truly wants to go. Black Panther is also weighed and buoyed by it conversations around race and politics. It is great to see a Marvel movie really wrestle with race and how it informs the politics of the characters and the world. How does Wakanda, and it’s reluctance to show itself, fit into the puzzle that is the African diaspora? Black Panther exists in a world that has had slavery, World Wars, and such pain and devastation and yet did nothing? So what shame do they bear, if any? How do the decisions of ancestors affect their descendants? Wakanda representing both a fascinating What If? to us (a place free of colonization) but also a people shirking their duties is phenomenal. The script by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole has nearly everyone comment on this, in their own unique way.
Where it falters is that once the message is stated, it feels the need to repeat it, through often unnecessary dialogue given mainly to Eric Stevens aka Killmonger, played with fury by Michael B. Jordan. Jordan has a tough task in what he is forced to embody, and though I found myself enamored with the character, his performance was merely…fine. He’s serviceable in being a powder keg of radical thought and decision making but he doesn’t quite make the turn into emotionally present villain.
However, when your main complaint about an acting ensemble is that one of it’s members is simply fine, you know you’ve got some fun to look forward to. Chadwick Boseman cut an impressive figure and stole the show in Captain America: Civil War
Speaking of stealing the show, the two actors that made Black Panther for me were Danai Gurira who played Okoye and Winston Duke who played M’Baku. Ever since word got out from Comic Con that Okoye would literally throw her wig at someone, it was destined that Danai’s portrayal of the general of the Dora Milaje would be amazing. It’s an even sharper performance the further on the film goes, giving shades to this woman in a powerful position. The movie might belong to Winston Duke as M’Baku, which is hilarious given his tribe’s outsider status. Every line reading, movement, acting choice that Winston makes is a delight and he brought a unique depth to a role that could have easily felt like a stock character.
Coogler’s got a great visual eye, and teaming up with Rachel Morrison again yields some lovely camera work, but his true gift is drawing performances from actors and world building. Coogler puts the pieces where he needs them to be and trusts that the team around him will be enough to take it the next step. With Black Panther, he’s certainly cemented himself as a go to filmmaker and Black Panther is an enjoyable time at the movies.