Directed by Ryan Coogler
Black Panther is a layered movie that combines a little bit of The Lion King with a little bit of James Bond and a lot of cultural history not typically represented in mainstream cinema in a satisfying, thought-provoking manner. There is a lot to discuss, both on and under the surface, and yet it is still another Marvel movie, limited to the familiar plot points and expectations of a studio with plans greater than the movie itself.
Like Wonder Woman, Black Panther is an opportunity for new voices and new representations of race and gender to be seen onscreen. It feels new and somewhat innovative, and it’s a huge step forward for an industry still behind the times. It shouldn’t be a huge step forwards, in other words, but it is.
The plot is less interesting than the themes and questions of identity. This is a story with the familiar big, explosive finales of a Marvel movie between hero and villain, yet the villain is a complex character questioning his own identity and sense of purpose. As Erik Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan (a Ryan Coogler favorite) plays a character drawn to his roots but who is fed up with the centuries-long mistreatment of communities of color. He represents a whole lot that I don’t feel I’m qualified to discuss. I can at least say that his anger is understandable, like a good villain should be, but the problem is what he wants to do with that anger. Killmonger is former special ops with a background in U.S. Military that comments on America’s history of colonialism, jumping in and disrupting other nations.
Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, the new king of Wakanda, a fictional African nation believed to be a poor country but which, thanks to Vibranium, is a deeply wealthy, affluent nation hidden by an invisible fortress. T’Challa wants to take care of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer who has stolen some of their vibranium with intent to sell it off to make incredibly dangerous weapons.
Klaue’s associate is Killmonger. Midway through the movie he kills Klaue and returns to Wakanda with his sights set on the throne.
Look, I’m already tired of describing the plot. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just a fairly standard Marvel plot. Klaue is an effective but disposable villain, T’Challa is a neat hero, and there is enough humor to bridge the set pieces. It’s fine.
But again, the most impactful part of Black Panther, the more innovate aspect, is what it comments on. This is a story of a fractured family and a fractured country. T’Challa and Killmonger both struggle with their personal backgrounds and the decisions of their fathers. Because of an uncertain past, T’Challa struggles with an uncertain future, but Killmonger has a conviction bred into him that T’Challa can’t afford.
There is so much to talk about, and again so much I don’t quite feel qualified to discuss. This is one of the most layered, and in a way complex, Marvel superhero movies with all of the intrigue somewhere in between the CGI-driven action set pieces.
Up Next: The Producers (1967), Bowling for Columbine (2002), The Post (2017)