Never in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a movie carried this much cultural anticipation, been led both in front of and behind the camera by a majority black cast and crew[of this size], and built an incredibly advanced world that rivals technology seen in sci-fi/fantasy classic such as Star Wars and newcomers like Guardians of The Galaxy. Black Panther absolutely took my breath away, made me cry, made me care and had me in a state of awe reminiscent of my reaction to Thor: Ragnarok. Read on for this spoiler-free Black Panther review!
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole struck screenplay gold when they pieced together this work of art. Despite (or maybe because of) a runtime of 135 minutes, I never wanted to leave the story of Black Panther, the introduction of Wakanda, and how it all played into the greater MCU story. The film begins simply enough with a monologue explaining how Wakanda and Black Panther came into existence while setting up the general rules of the movie world. However its from this opening scene that the viewer is presented with one of the many visual delights of the movie. The origin story is often undertaken in a variety of ways; sometimes the viewer sits through it as it happens, sometimes there’s tongue in cheek jokes, sometimes stylized imagery (especially in the case of the superhero stories where the origins have been told 10 times over). But in Black Panther, the origin story is beautifully narrated without accompaniment of a human face. Instead, as the narration moves along, sections are illustrated by what can be described as animated coal and dust. This material ebbs and churns to form people, animals, buildings and the general landscape, helping the viewer conceptualize the country of Wakanda. Wakanda was established by five tribes on a mound of Vibranium, the strongest metal known to man which afforded them highly accelerated technological advancement. Of course something so valuable would be an immediate target so they literally hid the country in plain sight from the rest of the world. Due to this, Wakanda has never been colonized or otherwise disturbed by outside forces.
As the film continues, we meet more characters through pivotal times in history and location; the story jumps from 90s Oakland, California (a nod to the birthplace of The Black Panther Party and Ryan Coogler’s hometown), to present day Wakanda (technically, sometime in 2016 as Black Panther takes place a week after the events of Civil War), to Busan, South Korea, then back to Wakanda. The movie does a fantastic job at marrying the traditional with the modern, as well as African-inspired with principles and experiences familiar to the black-American experience. Through every character introduction, location presentation and story arc; themes of redemption, innovation, loss, love and connection to the ancestors are intertwined.
The casting for Black Panther is perfect and exceeded my expectations. Sterling K. Brown‘s N’Jobu is as heartbreaking as he is poignant. N’Jobu’s story intrinsic to the very course of the story, and deserves your full attention. For those who are avid watchers of This Is Us, Sterling’s stellar performance may be absolutely expected. Sterling delivers a few lines about the state of oppressed people in America that hits home. Chadwick Boseman‘s performance as T’Challa/Black Panther is interesting because he represents the first full iteration of the character on-screen. T’Challa is exceptional across the board. He’s been groomed his entire life to be king, says all the right things, seems to do all the right thing, he’s both respectful and open-minded, and is typically steps ahead of anyone else. While this is very similar to the animated versions of Black Panther, this T’Challa may come off as too perfect. Though, I’d argue that we rarely get to see black men with almost perfect characterizations; so it’s refreshing to see this character portrayed as a gold standard.
Erik Killmonger, played beautifully by Michael B. Jordan is the best Marvel antagonist to date. Although he commits a variety of despicable acts throughout the film, I personally couldn’t completely see him as a villain–he’s much more than that. Killmonger has all the motive in the world to be this dreadful person that scorches the earth without much rhyme or reason. But his actions are much less based on blind treachery due to being some “evil person”, than it is based on his sheer hurt and vulnerability to how his life has turned out. He has a bone to pick with T’Challa and Wakanda as a whole, rightfully questioning how such an advanced and powerful country continues to hide itself from the world and, more importantly, doesn’t help the people around the world; especially non-Wakandan black people. The Killmonger role is absolutely representative of the general disconnect many black Americans have had with native and recent generation Africans living in America. As T’Challa is the peaceful, level-headed and culture rich protagonist, Killmonger is the culmination of all of the anger and disagreement borne from those that have been abandoned by their own. The negotiation between Killmonger and T’Challa was exceptionally thrilling as you can tell Killmonger was tapping into a side of T’Challa that he was trying to keep under control. Still, I found myself agreeing with Killmonger more than I disagreed. Besides his abhorrent violence against women, many of his thoughts were a direct reflection of my own–as were his words. He has a line at the end of the movie that was absolutely gut-wrenching and caused a painful stir in my psyche.
Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as the quick-witted and resourceful Nakia, a Wakandan spy. Though portrays T’Challa’s love interest, she is given the room and depth to explore her own life. She is of the mindset that Wakanda is strong enough to both protect itself and aid other countries. She is an unbreakable force that is as powerful as she is loving of those around her and her country. It was wonderful to experience Lupita in her own, versus only watching her act through the mask of a CG character.
Danai Gurira picks up the reigns of Okoye, General of the Dora Milaje (the King’s personal bodyguards) and never lets up from the moment she shows up on screen. Danai, famous for her role on Walking Dead, is shades of Michonne, turned up to a thousand as Okoye. Okoye is headstrong, loyal to the throne, and unquestionably badass. Her stunts and fight scenes (all self-performed) prompted raucous cheers and generated palpable excitement. She serves to right the ship and steady T’Challa’s course when he seems to waver. Okoye is incredible and I want to be like her when I grow up.
Letitia Wright as Shuri is undoubtedly the scene stealer and has most of the best one-liners in the movie. She is going to be the crowd favorite as her comedic timing is impeccable. She’s the sister and best friend you wish you had that pokes fun at you when you’re too serious, lends empathy and support when you feel alone, and uplifts you when you need a boost, whip-smart, sarcastic, funny and loving–in other words she’s everything a Disney Princess should be. She’s also the “smartest person in the world” in the MCU (according to film producer Nate Moore) as the head of the Wakanda Design Group. She’s basically T’Challa’s right-hand and is generally responsible for every cool piece of tech you’ll see during the film.
Angela Bassett‘s portrayal of Queen Ramonda, Black Panther’s mother (in the MCU) has been highly anticipated ever since she was announced to the cast and she does not disappoint. Upon seeing her in all her glory on-screen there were audible gasps and clapping throughout the theater. Angela is an O.G. and her emotive glances in the movie alone speak volumes. She delivers her pronouncements with an unmatched gravity and regalness that shakes you to your core. M’Baku, played by Winston Duke ended up being one of my favorite characters. He plays the burly M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe. As his tribe was the only one of the five to decide to isolate themselves in the Wakandan mountains, he initially comes off as gruff and contentious. But soon enough we get to see his humor and humanity shine through. His hilarious encounter with Everett Ross sealed the deal for me and his actions will be responsible for tons of memes to come.
Zuri, played by the legendary Forest Whitaker, was a good fit, delivering his lines through a thick South African-esque accent. His pronunciations and enunciations were the most pronounced, often announcing T’Challa as the “BLEK PENTHA”. He is T’Challa’s uncle that in unwavering from tradition and views honor as the highest currency. Zuri is Wakanda’s spiritual and ritual leader which, to me, is right up Whitaker’s alley. He performed his role elegantly and I felt he truly took his character to heart.
Agent Everett Ross, played by Martin Freeman and Ulysses Klaue, as acted by Andy Serkis, are basically the only white main characters in the movie, yet are relegated to more background roles. This is a purposeful distinction to turn the default relationship of white characters and characters of color on its head. Martin plays the straight man role, not really understanding the magnitude of the situation until he’s immersed in unfamiliar territory. Ross is a bit dry compared to the other lively characters so I didn’t pay him much mind when he was on screen. Serkis’s Klaue is absolutely bonkers in the best way possible. He continues to play Klaue with a true villainous immaturity that knows no bounds in his outrageous and erratic actions, yet he is still likeable. Serkis does a great job with his ability to translate Klaue’s sometimes aloofness, yet constant silliness into something that’s decidedly more insidious.
Overall, the technological marvels of the movie are pretty jaw dropping. You see holograms, drop ships, advanced maglev, weaponry and tools used by both Black Panther and the general populace that make the iPhone X look downright primitive. While there are some CG niggles here and there, they’re not overtly noticeable. The film’s score, spearheaded by Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther album, mixed with musical detailing by composer Ludwig Göransson and Senegalese musician Baaba Maal hit all the necessary notes in terms of sending the viewer on a musical journey. I was in tears as the capital city of Wakanda was revealed to a fanfare of trumpets and horns. The music complimented the tones of each scene and felt like a perfect marriage of the past and the present. In terms of costuming, Ruth E. Carter absolutely outdid herself as she noted in her interview with us last month, as she poured over wardrobe elements from hundreds of real African nations and tribes and created distinct looks and designs for the people of Wakanda. Both traditional and modern textiles were incorporated, such as heavy beadwork in the bodices of the Dora Milaje and 3-D printing of Queen Ramonda’s headpiece. It’s important to note that with the exception of Wonder Woman we haven’t seen women be at the forefront to this capacity in all aspects of society. Even more specifically, Black Panther marks the first time you have black women being shown as leaders in governance, tech/science, military, and more all at once. In fact, the women in this film are the true backbone of the nation and it meant a great deal to see this represented in such a huge Marvel movie. I finally felt seen.
Black Panther has the capacity to change the course of a generation. Black Panther’s story is enjoyable and relatable for anyone watching and offers a variety of introspective analysis below the surface. Black Panther is unique, fun, engaging, mesmerizing, and delightfully inspiring. It will be both a critical and box-office win for both Marvel and Ryan Coogler and be the catalyst for more movies of its type. See it more than once.
If you’re looking for more, check out our Black Panther – First Reactions video that was live streamed last week!