PG-13 | 2h 14min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi | 16 February 2018 (USA)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Cast: Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger), Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke (M’Baku), Sterling K. Brown (N’Jobu), Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis (Ulyssess Klaue)
Ray View Rating: 5
The Marvel Studios superhero movie, Black Panther, has gleaned a lot of hype and praise as being not just good, but something really different. I think the movie mostly lives up to that praise, but I view its specialness as being not so much in being “different,” as in “finally getting it right.”
The movie works on two levels. The first is as a dramatic piece in the thriller genre. Secondly, and more important, it works as an artistic and social watershed. It is a “black movie” in the way that movies should have long since portrayed black people and their experience in western civilization. It seems that the best rebuke to the “white man’s burden” concept comes from a superhero movie.
First, this is a good, action-packed, thriller movie. It has all the requirements of the thriller genre—a strong protagonist fighting long odds and supported by heroic friends against an equally strong antagonist. The dramatic tension is primarily from the contest between protag and antag, with large doses of physical battles in carrying out the plot. It even has a bit of a “MacGuffin” thrown in (the vibranium). There’s all the spills and chills with fast-paced action of a Marvel superhero movie, but it’s done well in that the action is not “over the top” (e.g., Thor Ragnarok). Also, the script doesn’t indulge in the irritating fad of tongue-in-cheek “humor” (also e.g., Thor Ragnarok). I mean the characters operate within the constraints of the fiction’s universe and they take it seriously. There is humor, but it doesn’t pull the viewer out of the dramatic experience.
The characters and situations are taken from the Marvel comics, but the storyline is pretty much basic thriller. I’m OK with such genre fiction when it’s done well, and it is with this movie. The action is thrilling with very good SFX and CGI. The plotline keeps the tension up with enough complications to keep it from being predictable (up to a point). I liked that the Black Panther costume wasn’t so “mechanized” as many of the superhero costumes are. It is closer to the “non-tech” costuming of the comics rather than the militaristic “armor” so many of the superhero costumes have become in their movie representations. That aspect emphasizes the hero’s superness rather than the costume.
Now, I think that good characterizations take a thriller story to a higher level. That’s especially true in a superhero movie, where you run the risk of making a kid’s movie and putting off the adults. Ryan Coogler (writer and director) is successful in that regard, and more. T’Challa is sufficiently strong, though with weaknesses, and moral enough to fight for justice against villains who are either morally depraved (Klaue) or misguided-dysfunctional (Killmonger). So its easy to pull for T’Challa.
Casting was well done. Chadwick Boseman brings out the right blend of strength, intelligence, and moral fiber in T’Challa/Black Panther. Michael B. Jordan plays, Killmonger, T’Challa’s chief rival with a range from street punk to bad a—s , to tragic figure. He seems to be a capable actor so I expect we’ll see more of him. A couple of venerable actors lent some class and gravitas to the story. One is Forest Whitaker as Zuri, and the other is Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda. Martin Freeman is CIA agent, Everett Ross, who is a sympathetic helper character. Freeman is a Brit playing his character with an American accent. He does it well and that seems to be the current fad. I had my biggest problem with Freeman’s character. For having such an anti-colonial theme, here is a CIA agent as the protagonist’s friend and significant helper. Well, I guess this is based on a comic book.
While on the subject of the cast, I have to mention Andy Serkis, who has finally played a role that is not CGI or in heavy makeup. He plays the baddie, Klaue, and apparently bulked up for the part. Bless his heart. He’ll always be Gollum to me.
On the higher level, this movie breaks significant ground for African-Americans. The characters are mostly African-American and the story is told from the “black African” viewpoint. Without condescension or insulting stereotyping, the movie presents a story of black people as people—real people, as good and bad and nuanced as all human beings are. This has not really been done well before. Not even in such classics as the 1970s’ Roots series. It is in keeping with Stan Lee’s vision and it just excels over the what Hollywood has done in the past. Even so, it breaks that barrier, though just barely.
For example, there is a strong anti-colonial theme in the movie. To protect itself and the vibranium element that empowers it, the nation of Wakanda hides itself behind a cloak of “normal” third world poverty. When we see the real Wakanda, we see the level of development that African nations should have attained, if not for the imperialism of the west (ongoing today). This seen in the white characters expressing disdain for African “savages,” and in the deriding term of “colonist” being applied to the white CIA agent (appropriately!). This theme is subtle, however, and I don’t know how many younger viewers will catch it. Not many, I suspect.
This movie is Heart of Darkness turned around. Probably, kudos for that should go to both Stan Lee and Ryan Coogler. They’ve made, not just a superhero story with an African protagonist, but something important in the history of socially-charged drama.