Black Panther captures the essence of something much more complex

 By Michelle Wheeler

February 15, 2018

There’s no question Black Panther is already a phenomenon. Its very existence defies years of comic book movie-making tradition, and it’s already broken every presale record that previously existed. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s expected to achieve a certain level of quality, so the question most people are asking as it’s released to the masses isn’t necessarily “is it good?” but “how good is it?”

The short answer is it is very, very good. It’s more than five-star good, it’s more than better-than-your-average-comic-book-movie good, it’s especially more than eighteenth(!)-movie-in-an-expansive-franchise good.

The film ostensibly tells the origin story of Black Panther, a superhero who by day is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of a fictional African nation called Wakanda.

Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (Black Panther), and Danai Gurira as Okoye. Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Wakanda is in possession of vibranium, the most powerful metal known to man, and their society has been built around it for generations. As the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) says, it’s sewn into their clothes, it powers their cities, their tech, their weapons. Though there are tribal traditions and ancient rituals observed by Wakandans, vibranium has also made them one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth.

Knowing the outside world would descend on them with a multitude of motives, past kings of Wakanda have kept all this a secret. To the rest of the world, they appear to be a third world country who mostly keep to themselves. This secret is threatened by the entrance of Klaue, and especially his colleague Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger is American ex-military with a personal connection to Wakanda. When he shows up on King T’Challa’s doorstep, challenging him for the throne, the central conflict shifts to something much deeper than run-of-the-mill hero versus villain.

Michael B. Jordan as N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. Courtesy of Marvel Studios

As Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan has all the swagger of a comic book villain, but provokes more empathy than I think audiences are used to feeling for “the bad guy.” He brings with him to Wakanda a not-unearned chip on his shoulder, having grown up toughing it out on the streets of Oakland, CA. In his third collaboration with director Ryan Coogler (after Fruitvale Station and CREED), Jordan proves once again that he will not be content with anything but a multi-dimensional character who won’t easily conform to previously held stereotypes about what makes a person good or evil. Humans are complex, and Jordan is clearly committed to bringing that complexity to every one of his roles.

Chadwick Boseman never sacrifices the power and personality of Black Panther, but, in contrast to Killmonger’s bluster, he plays T’Challa as reserved and focused. With his soft-spoken voice and introspective delivery, Boseman captures the inner struggle of a man becoming a king. T’Challa has been raised in a sheltered environment, believing Wakandans could do no wrong, especially Wakandan kings. Now that he’s a king himself, he must face difficult truths about the actions of his forefathers. Though he will certainly fight to defeat Killmonger and reclaim his throne, T’Challa recognizes Killmonger as a “monster of their own making.” Conflicted over how to proceed, how to balance protecting his people while honoring the struggle of others, T’Challa is told he must decide what kind of king he wants to be. It’s this movie’s “with great power comes great responsibility” moment. That T’Challa must bear the full weight of that responsibility and understand that even a king must deal with the consequences of his actions reveals Black Panther as less the origin story of a superhero, and more the origin story of a true leader.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Black Panther is not all serious stand-offs and heavy conversation, though. That moment that got everyone cheering in the trailer – where Black Panther flips and lands on the car – turns out to be just one of many incredibly action-packed sequences. The car chases, the technology, the fight scenes led by the Dora Milaje (the elite group of female warriors who act as the personal guard of the king) all point back to the fierce and innovative spirit of Wakanda while being a whole lot of fun. Though Black Panther is less laugh-out-loud funny than some of Marvel’s other offerings, it does have its moments. T’Challa’s sister and tech guru, Shuri, speaks in memes and Coachella references, and Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje and all-around bad-ass, has one of the best wig-snatches captured on film.

“Representation” is a buzz word that gets thrown around a lot in media discussions and critiques. Many people seem to think it’s a matter of quantity over quality. Of the many incredible things director Ryan Coogler achieves with Black Panther, it may be most impressive that, rather than going the easy route of simply presenting black people onscreen, he captures the essence of something much more complex: blackness. The movie is excellence and struggle. It is “by any means necessary” and non-violent protest. It is royalty and racism. It is past, present, and future of the spectrum of black experience, and its impact on audiences who have never before had the opportunity to see a story like this cannot be overstated. Beyond everything else that makes Black Panther good, it is this true example of representation that elevates it to greatness.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5

*You Should Also: Stick around for a mid-credit and post-credit scene. You’re welcome.*

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