'Black Panther' Review: Marvel's First Black Superhero Movie Is More Than Just Lit
By Angelique Jackson
The hashtag #BlackPantherSoLIT started trending in March of 2016 -- nearly two years before Black Panther would arrive in theaters. Each casting announcement, teaser and trailer was heavily scrutinized as fans searched for clues about Wakanda – all of which were shrouded in secrecy, because, truly, everything about this movie is a spoiler. Black Panther smashed records for advanced ticket sales -- even Lupita Nyong’o, who is in the cast, couldn’t get a ticket for opening night. It’s pretty safe to say that people are geeked on Black Panther! Now, the big question: Can the movie possibly live up to all that hype?
Since the first footage of Black Panther debuted, each glimpse has been more spectacular than the last, from the incredible costumes to the awe-inspiring special effects. But when the audience gets their first look at the secretive, Afrofuturistic country of Wakanda in the film, it is truly breathtaking, with stunning aerial views of waterfalls and lush trees and hills. "This never gets old," T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) says of the view. And it sure doesn't. The entire film is inexpressibly beautiful, both in the scenic visuals and the parade of beautiful black faces.
Black Panther picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with T’Challa mourning the loss of his father (who was killed during Civil War) and adjusting to what it means to be both a superhero and King of Wakanda while facing threats from the outside world. Boseman takes up the mantle and is in fine form as the title character, a feat that is not surprising considering he’s played so many real life black superheroes -- James Brown, Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall -- but he is not charged with carrying the film.
In fact, it’s the supporting characters that give the movie its color, especially the badass women of Wakanda, led by Nakia, Okoye and Shuri (Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and Letitia White, respectively). Princess Shuri -- yes, we've got a new Disney Princess, y'all -- is a 16-year-old tech genius, who is equal parts sassy and smart and is responsible for Wakanda's technological advancements and weapons development. Essentially, Shuri is the Q to T'Challa's James Bond and it's a delight to witness their playful brother-sister dynamic. Nyong'o's Nakia is a war dog (Wakanda's version of a spy), torn between love for her work, love for her country and her feelings for its new king. Quite thankfully, Nakia is more than just T'Challa's love interest, though. She is a strong and capable warrior, and Nyong'o really seizes that opportunity to make her a fully-realized character.
On T'Challa's other side is Okoye, played by The Walking Dead's Gurira. While Nakia is a bit of a rebel, Okoye is a firm traditionalist and the two women have an especially poignant scene in the film in which they argue over what loyalty really means. (Yes, Black Panther passes the Bechdel Test.) Okoye is head of the Dora Milaje, the King of Wakanda's all-female task force of warrior bodyguards. While Okoye's bald head and attitude may recall Grace Jones, this woman is one of a kind. What Gurira can do with a snap of her eyes, a toss of a wig or a cutting comment is incredible, but it's her fighting that is truly unparalleled. At times, she is fighting so quickly, it looks like she is moving in fast-forward. All hail Okoye, the Queen of Side Eye!
Created in the late '60s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character of Black Panther has a long road to the screen. In the decades it took for Black Panther to make it to the screen, Marvel reportedly approached a number of prominent directors about helming the film -- including John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood), F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, Fate of the Furious) and Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time) -- before finally landing on Ryan Coogler. As a show of respect and likely curiosity, all three directors were in attendance to see what the 31-year-old visionary had in store at the film’s world premiere and participated in the standing ovation the director received before a single frame appeared on the screen.
Watching the movie, it's clear why Coogler was the right fit to direct. Coogler is able to masterfully balance the action with humor, the comic book icon with the black touchstone, futurism and cultural relevance. He knows what he wants to say with the film and knows what a big opportunity this is to say it, especially for a black filmmaker. Early on in the film, T’Challa is told that he's a "good man with a good heart and it’s hard for a good man to be king" and is given the advice to surround himself with people he trusts. This rang true for Coogler, too, who enlisted a trusted team to take on this massive undertaking, from his usual composer, Ludwig Göransson, to his cinematographer, Oscar-nominated Rachel Morrison, to his frequent collaborator, Michael B. Jordan.
Fans were thrilled about a third collaboration between Coogler and the actor, after their success with 2013’s Fruitvale Station (which shed light on police brutality years before it became daily conversation) and 2015’s Rocky-spinoff, Creed. This time, instead of playing the hero, Jordan is taking on the role of the villain. It’s important to note that the greatest and most prevalent criticisms of Marvel films and superhero movies in general has been the strength (or lack thereof) of their bad guys. Often, the villains are one note, under-developed or simply ridiculous. Rest assured, Jordan’s Erik Killmonger is arguably the best antagonist the Marvel Cinematic Universe has offered up.
Killmonger is just as charismatic as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but has more easily accessible motivations that ultimately make the character relatable. So relatable, in fact, that many in the audience were brought to tears by the end. Tears for the villain. We’re not supposed to root for Killmonger -- whose name is literally taken from his expertise in killing --- but, because of Jordan, we do. Jordan rightly compares T'Challa and Killmonger to X-Men's Magneto and Professor X -- they are two men with the same goal, but vastly different methods. It may be a stretch to compare them to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the more militant Malcolm X, but it is also somewhat works. It is through Erik's eyes that we understand the larger social commentary of the most political Marvel film yet: Understanding that the world needs a change and oppressed people need our support to do it, but also asking how can that be done?
Jordan has said that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was an inspiration for his work here. "As an actor, you watch certain performances that motivate you and inspire," he told ET’s Nischelle Turner. "Heath’s performance as a villain was so captivating, I couldn't stop watching. And I was like man, okay, if I can get into that rare space of a character, where people empathize but still kind of understand [his motives], but still are taken aback by...it will all work out." And work out it does. Keep in mind Ledger won an Oscar for his performance as the Joker. Could Jordan follow suit?
Speaking of the Academy, I want to make a bold prediction: Black Panther could be the superhero movie to break into the Best Picture race at the Oscars. Stay with me here. The Dark Knight getting snubbed is one of the reasons we now have the potential for 10 Best Picture nominees each year, and audiences were very upset by this year's snub of Wonder Woman -- a film that became a cultural revelation last summer.
Between the cultural importance of this film, which features Marvel’s first black superhero, the push to legitimize superhero films as art, as well as recent snubs of black films like Straight Outta Compton in 2016, Black Panther very well could make waves with the Academy. Loganbroke through this year as the first superhero film to be recognized for a writing award (Best Adapted Screenplay), while Morrison made history as the first woman to be nominated for Best Cinematography. The cast also boasts two Oscar-winners (Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker) and another two nominees (Angela Bassett and the newly-minted Best Actor nominee, Daniel Kaluuya) -- not to mention the walking trophy case that is Sterling K. Brown. So, might we see a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole in 2019? Another cinematography nomination for Morrison? Best Costume Design for Ruth E. Carter? Best Original Song for Kendrick Lamar and SZA's anthemic "All the Stars"? It feels like the visual effects categories are a given, but perhaps Best Supporting Actor recognition for Jordan? Best Director for Coogler? Best Picture for everyone?
All I'm saying is that things could get interesting come next year's awards season. For now, just be satisfied with the best the MCU has to offer. Wakanda forever!