Ryan Coogler brings tradition, culture, symbolism, and most importantly, change to the world stage in “Black Panther.”
I don’t think it’s a big secret at this point that I am not a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I didn’t grow up on comic books, so for me, I’m not invested in this universe. What is interesting is that after seventeen movies, I have discovered that the stories follow fantasy films that I enjoyed as a kid, because the themes they explored are carried within the MCU. Never have those themes congealed as well as they did in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” the eighteenth film in the MCU.
Tradition is on full display even as the film opens. We are treated to a question about how the Wakandans came to be. It gives rise to Vibranium and explains the birth of the first Black Panther, who united the five warring tribes, forming the nation of Wakanda. Years later, the sitting king of Wakanda, T’Chaka (John Kani) is killed, forcing his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to ascend to the throne as the rightful heir. A secret from the past threatens the kingdom and the world.
Mr. Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) brings a very assured and confident hand in his directorial turn, something that I didn’t think I needed or even wanted in a Marvel film, and yet, I appreciated it. I had a similar reaction to Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok.” The key to the film is in its script, which Mr. Coogler co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole.
They managed to create a microcosm not only within the movie, but within the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. The brilliance in the story is that it is self-contained and yet, it is steeped in culture and tradition. Lightning quick dialog touches on numerous themes of isolation, oppression and repression to the forefront with a ferocity that has been lacking in other Marvel films.
Mr. Boseman does an amazing job as he is called upon to fight in a ceremonial challenge to his crown in addition to inhabiting the Black Panther personae. Tradition and family are very critical to the Wakandans. Standing by his side are his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and his closest friend, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”). Loyal to the crown is Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Special Forces. Her athleticism was called upon several times throughout the film, but her ability to emote through her eyes said a lot about her performance and the character.
Forest Whitaker played Zuri, an elder statesman in Wakanda, a role we’ve seen him play time and again. It is his diplomatic approach to a role that gives him the gravitas to approach this role and lends itself well to the traditions of Wakanda. Martin Freeman has an extended role as Everett K. Ross. He is an effective addition to the cast, helping to build intrigue and adventure into the narrative.
Michael B. Jordan plays Killmonger, who is hell-bent on reclaiming his rightful place in Wakandan society. I was impressed with his determination as Adonis Creed and his fierce nature is on display in this role. However, I thought his aggressiveness diminished the impact of the character, but I am convinced the he can play another villain. He wasn’t as cartoonish as Andy Serkis’s Ulysses Klaue. Serkis was the most animated actor in the entire film. He presented a dangerous aspect, and while he grounded the film in the MCU reality, his character felt out of place when the entire film is considered.
Visually, the film is stunning. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography carries the largess of the Wakandans, while the effects teams created an environment fit for a king. The real heartbeat of this film is its wonderful score from Ludwig Goransson. From subtle drum beats to full, action-packed themes, it carries the heritage of a society ready to burst forth and to put itself on the world’s stage.
Despite my praise, I initially found the film to be “flat” as it emulated the espionage-driven films of the 1970s with a hint of “Wonder Woman,” a little bit of “Lion King,” and some small measure of Shakespeare. It was as I started to break the film down that I realized the subliminal power of what this film stands for and more importantly, what it represents. I understand its importance to not only the universe it inhabits, but the symbolism of our own tribes coming together as one. Perhaps it is because of its serious nature that I still struggle with the film itself, but I respect the hell out of it.
Now in theaters, “Black Panther” is rated PG-13 by the MPAA.