Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’O, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman
Black Panther is the newest epic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it is one of the most self-contained and Shakespearean of the MCU films which makes sense given the setting. The only times it deviates from the setting of Wakanda is when the film takes short jaunts to Los Angeles and South Korea. These scenes are necessary to enhance the story, but this film is uniquely about Wakanda.
In Oakland, California in the early nineties, two men are planning something which involves weapons. One of the men realizes something is wrong when two women knock on the door and his friend is told to open it. When he does, two members of the Dora Milaje enter. The Dora are personal guards to the king of Wakanda, Black Panther. The man planning is N’Jobu, played by Sterling K. Brown. As he tries to explain to T’Chaka what he is doing, we discover that the other man in a spy for Wakanda. This is important because the aftermath of this exchange sets up the rest of the film’s plot.
The film’s main plot takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is on his way home after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) but has decided to take a detour to take down a group of human traffickers in order to retrieve Nakia (Lupita Nyong’O), another spy for Wakanda and someone who T’Challa has a history with. The head of the Dora, Okoye, played with a brilliant fierceness by Danai Gurira, escorts the prince back to Wakanda to assume the throne. Whoever the production designer is on this movie needs a nomination for his or her work on this movie. Wakanda looks amazing on-screen and the production design does an amazing job of incorporating both the technological advancement of mag-lev trains and skyscrapers with the agrarian landscapes of the city and its border lands.
As T’Challa finds himself taking the reigns of leadership in a ceremony of trial by combat, M’Baku (Winston Duke) challenges for the throne. One of the brilliantly choreographed fight scenes follows and the new king is crowned. This scene showcases the different tribes of Wakanda and does a great job of showing how they are different in their dress and design, but come together as a community to support the throne.
In the aftermath, Black Panther decides to take on a mission to bring in Ulysses Klau (Andy Serkis) for his crimes against the country. Panther, Nakia and Okoye travel to South Korea to apprehend the arms dealer and run into CIA agent Ross (Matthew Freeman). In the resulting chase, we get to see Wakandan tech in action. After Klau is busted out of an interrogation room, T’Challa gets a glimpse of something that will have huge repercussions to him personally as well as Wakanda itself.
Michael B. Jordan was amazing as Erik Killmonger, the villain of the film. Like the best villains, he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy. His plan is both personal and political. In a sense, he represents many of the things African-Americans deal with when thinking about Africa. He has some great moments in the film, especially when he confronts T’Challa about where Wakanda was when Africa was ravaged by colonization, when African Americans were fighting for civil rights. All legitimate questions for a country that prospered in part because of its secrecy. His performance is never superficial. It never strays into parody (this is the function that Andy Serkis’ Klaw serves, which continues to be over the top and funny) and there is depth and a personal story to his motivations.
He has a connection to Wakanda and, more importantly, T’Challa and the royal family. That connection drives the plot of the film. There are all the elements of a Shakespeare tragedy in this film and its one of the reasons why it has such scale and pathos. T’Challa must deal with the burdens of leadership, the secrets of the past and where to take his kingdom in the future. Chadwick Boseman does an amazing job of playing that conflict out with a cool, measured earnestness.
The breakout performances in this film are from the ladies that surround and support T’Challa both physically and emotionally. Lupita Nyong’O is amazing as Nakia. She could easily fall into the trope of the classic love interest, but she has her own ambitions and strength. Danai Gurira’s Okoye is my favorite character in the film. She has a unique relationship with T’Challa. She is both a fierce protector and an older sister when it comes to giving T’Challa advice. There is a great moment in the film where the conflict between her personal feelings for T’Challa and her duty to the throne clash and she shows both strength and dignity in her decision.
Letitia Wright was great as T’Challa’s sister Shuri. As the tech genius and weapon designer for the country, Wright gives Shuri personality and purchase as she both serves the crown as well as keep her brother grounded.
Black Panther moves the superhero genre forward by telling a multi-layered story with both cultural and political significance. It doesn’t hold back from its message and shows layered characters with depth, strength and emotion. I found myself feeling for Killmonger and there is a scene between he and N’Jobu that is heartbreaking in its emotional resonance. Black Panther is an amazing experience of a film that I’ve enjoyed twice already and encourage everyone to go see.
End Credits Scenes: Two. One scene puts a button on the plot of the film and sets up the sequel. The other connects to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe and sets up Anvengers: Infinity War.