Film Review – Black Panther

I believe that the majority of the world knew on some level that the arrival of a movie such as Black Panther was inevitable. In some way or another it was bound to happen. But as I write this I do not believe any one had any idea just how big it would be, let alone just how damn great it would be. Black Panther is a massive milestone for Hollywood, for Marvel, for Ryan Coogler, but maybe most of all, for the black community as a whole. For so many black people all over the world, especially children, this is their moment to see who they are represented on screen. This is our moment. And judging by the five-day domestic gross of Black Panther, we did not disappoint.

The film opens within a setting that is very much not Wakanda but one that could be familiar to almost any number of individuals. What follows is an origin, but not the one you expect, and born from it is a betrayal of the worst kind. But this won’t be the last time the film returns to this location. From there, the rest of the film begins as we pick up with Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa following Captain America: Civil War. He returns to Wakanda after picking up his old flame Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) to begin his coronation as king. Boseman is joined by an All-Star cast that consists of Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger, who we’ll get to in a minute), Danai Gurira (Okoye, the general of T’Challa’s body guards, the Dora Milaje, and the film’s resident badass), Angela Bassett who plays Queen Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri (who steals practically every frame she’s in), and a host of other extremely strong actors that make each scene an absolute joy. A movie this stacked, with this many great actors, playing the characters that they are should seem a bit daunting, yet no one gets the short end of the stick here. Everyone has something to do here, while still making their character their own. Take Shuri for example, her character is one to rival Tony Stark in intelligence yet for someone who’s been walled off from the rest of the world, she’s quite in touch with our mimetic culture, while still being an absolute joy to have onscreen. And she’s just one of the few characters with a lot of screen time. Even the ones like Winston Duke’s M’Baku, who maybe shows up for three scenes, still makes an impact on the film (while getting the biggest laughs from the theater).

But let’s get to who we really want to talk about: Killmonger. Yes, Boseman’s T’Challa is great, a suave James Bond that just happens to have super’s powers and is king. He’s just as magnetic as he was in Civil War. But Killmonger is different. What Michael B. Jordan has done here will more than likely go down as one of the best onscreen villains in the MCU, maybe even cinematic history. His Killmonger is a bloodthirsty monster, but at his core his reasonings for his actions aren’t necessarily wrong. He was, like so many other individuals that look like him, like me – wronged. And at the end of the day, no matter how violent and despicable his actions, his reasonings have an air of true legitimacy that cannot be ignored. It helps that Jordan is still ridiculously charming in the role (with what I thought was a little bit of camp as well), but he also gives Killmonger pain. A pain that he can’t outwardly express because of what was done to him, so that instead of giving himself a peaceful outlet, he does so violently, lashing out against anyone and anything he perceives as a threat. He fits right in with a villain such as Magneto, the difference being besides their skin color is that Killmonger’s pain comes from a place that is all too modern in todays society (while also stretching back thousands of years as well). Jordan does phenomenal work here, if not it being the most impressive thing of his career.  If anything, another impressive thing that Ryan Coogler does, is that no one besides Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis and one of the two major white guys in the film), is really painted as a villain. Yes, Killmonger is the villain of the film, but given a bad day, some if not most would agree with his cause. Even M’Baku, who is usually a villain found in the Black Panther comics isn’t quite a bad guy here. Sure, he fights T’Challa early on, but his arc is one of a man who simply wants to do right by his people. What Coogler and Jordan have done with Killmonger is nothing short of incredible, and even after two viewings all I could do is leave the theater thinking about Killmonger and how he, despite his villainy, is able to change our hero T’Challa for the better.

I half expected the music for Black Panther to be little one-note. Save for a few tracks from different Marvel films, I wasn’t expecting much. And then they announced Kendrick Lamar was doing some an original album for the film. I was stoked. It came out, I listened to it, and it was probably going to be the best thing musically about the film. All in all, I couldn’t complain. But once I saw the Black Panther, and heard it on the big screen, I knew I was in for something special. Returning from Ryan Coogler’s last film Creed, is Ludwig Goransson. Here, he gives African drums and vocals over to what could have been another boring superhero track, and instead brings it to life. From the flutes that haunt the dream sequences in the film, to the hip hop laden beats that mark Killmonger’s presence onscreen, Goransson is no slouch. His music gives the film a humanity, while also touching the usual benchmarks from what we expect in modern superhero films. For that alone, he may have composed my favorite Marvel score yet (though I don’t think it beats Giacchino’s Doctor Strange theme). It also goes without saying how that Wakanda is beyond gorgeous. It’s a country that has one foot in the past, while another in the future and it looks gorgeous. Even the Jabari tribe is amazing to behold, despite it being far removed from the city. The production design is incredible, and I find that it may be hard pressed to find a film that may beat this one in its aesthetics alone.

So here we are again. We are five days removed from the release of Black Panther, and just like Jordan Peele’s Get Out (which also stars Daniel Kaluuya, who here plays T’Challa’s close friend W’Kabi) which came out last year, it too has crushed all expectations of both critics and the Box Office. There’s no version of both of these movies opening and doing what they’ve done, and they don’t somehow change the landscape of Hollywood. What has happened here is nothing short of revolutionary, and what Ryan Coogler has crafted is a film for the ages. It’s a superhero film through and through, starring its titular hero in regular comic book fashion against a foe that is in many ways his equal and mirror opposite, yet in the end his foe makes him a better man when the day is done. It’s a spy film (especially in its second act, complete with a scene where our “Bond” goes to get gadgets from his “Q”). It’s a film that is not shy about confronting racial politics, isolationism, and globalization. Black Panther is a film of many trades, and yet Coogler makes it all work. Is the plot a bit weak? Yes, but it’s a testament to the characters that they not only sell it, but also make us care for them in the process. Overall Killmonger’s goal is sorta one note, but his reasoning for doing it makes the most sense and one that more than one person will find themselves wondering whether or not they agree with his actions. Hell, the film practically ends with a note that seems to directly address the political turmoil we live in now with Trump (though I highly doubt he would ever heed the message).

There’s so much about this film that works that I almost forgot to mention just how badass the women are. You’ve got a fight sequence towards the end where both Shuri and Nakia take on Killmonger. You’ve got Okoye taking on thugs in a casino. And though I must say majority of this goes to the Dora Milaje, who get some of the best fight sequences in the entire film, it does nothing to lessen the impact of the women around T’Challa.  This is by far one of Marvel’s crowning achievements in many ways, but it also goes to Coogler and the cast for making a film about a superhero feel so human, while also hitting home. I’m glad Infinity War comes out in the next few weeks, as I can’t wait to head back to Wakanda and say hi to all these fantastic people. Black Panther is for the Trayvon Martins, and the Tamir Rice’s of the world. See it for them. See it for yourself. But most of all, see it because Black Panther is a moment in history you can say you were a part of. A moment that may very well change the very landscape of filmmaking. Wakanda Forever.

2 thoughts on “Film Review – Black Panther

  1. As much as I loved Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, I think Letitia Wright as Shuri stole the movie for me. She had the right mix of smarts, sass, and strength. There aren’t many movies that I can think of where so many of the supporting cast are on par, or even out shine, the main cast. Black Panther is probably at the top of that short list. Great review, Max!

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