“Tell me something. What do you know about Wakanda?” ~ Ulysses Klaue
“It’s a third world country. Textiles. Shepherds. Cool outfits.” ~ Everett K. Ross
“All a front. Explorers have searched for it, called it El Dorado. They looked for it in South America, but it was in Africa the whole time. I’m the only one who’s seen it, and made it out alive.” ~ Ulysses Klaue
“I want the throne!” ~ Erik Killmonger
“Only you can decide what kind of king you want to be.” ~ Nakia
“What happens now determines what happens to the rest of the world.” ~ T’Challa
Marvel’s cinematic universe has been around now for a decade plus, bringing to vivid live heroes on the big screen in a way that hasn’t faltered yet. Now attention is turned to give the spotlight to one of the most formidable and enigmatic of its characters- T’Challa, king of Wakanda, in the new film Black Panther. Indie director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) takes the helm for a story that mixes together heroics, high tech, race and class, and a man coming to grips with his destiny… while thinking six moves ahead.
The film opens with a bit of history of the mysterious country of Wakanda, where a metal called Vibranium has blessed the country, which has kept its secrets hidden behind a smoke screen of isolation as a supposed Third World Country. In the wake of the death of King T’Chaka (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the mantle of the throne and the tribal chieftainship as the Black Panther. He faces challenges from within- a rival tribal chieftain, an arms dealer with history with his country, and a distant relative with a grudge and his own ambitions.
The Black Panther has a long history in comics, first appearing in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966 before getting a solo title of his own. Balancing between heroics as an Avenger and his responsibilities as a king, T’Challa has often been an enigmatic character. When written at his best, he is the sort of person you don’t want to start a fight with; he’s the chess player thinking several moves ahead of how he’s going to best you, essentially the Batman of the Marvel Universe. There have been plans for years, going back to 1992, for adapting the character to the big screen, with Wesley Snipes initially expressing interest. When the Marvel cinematic universe became a reality beginning with the first Iron Man film, the idea of bringing this character to life started to take shape.
Ryan Coogler not only directed, but co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole. Their script gives nods to the history of the character in the comics, as well as what’s been previously established in the Marvel cinematic universe. There is a good deal of influence from a run on the title by the writer Christopher Priest in the story- a wise decision, given that Priest’s extended run with these characters rates as one of the best comic book runs ever done. Their story weaves together the futuristic yet tribal culture of this fantastic world with themes like duty, responsibility, and ambition- themes that play themselves out in multiple characters, in different ways. Race and society status are also examined- something that might appear unusual in a superhero adaptation, but it feels done in a natural way.
Marvel’s cinematic offerings have, especially as of late, taken chances with unusual directors, and have paid off. Coogler might seem at first an odd choice for an epic like this, given his previous experience in what are best described as character dramas. He works quite well in the job, grounding the film in the characters themselves, while handling the epic scope of what is part grand sets and part CGI as a supporting element, not the focus itself. The cinematography of the film is beautifully done, but not in an overwhelming way, and the director keeps the audience on the personal level in terms of how things are filmed.
The production values by the crew are exceptional; the MCU has already shown us fantastic worlds like Asgard and the alien planets of the two Guardians films, and Wakanda’s presentation in the film builds on that. It’s a blend of technology and African landscapes rendered in a breathtaking way- something unique in its manner. This is a part of Africa that in the MCU was never colonized, that developed in isolation, and so Wakanda’s look is something quite different from what we know here.
Some of the cast return from previous films, but much of them are new to the Marvel cinematic universe, and they’re all well chosen. John Kani plays the ill-fated King T’Chaka, who died in Captain America: Civil War, in a flashback that plays to the duty the king has to his country, as well as his dignity and wisdom as a person. Florence Kasumba likewise reprises her role from that film as Ayo, a member of the Dora Milaje, an order of women who serve as a special forces group and bodyguards to the king. Andy Serkis returns as Ulysses Klaue, the mercenary arms dealer from Avengers Age Of Ultron. Klaue is a ruthless, vindictive man with ties to Wakanda and his own ambitions, something that Serkis gets to play to in his return.
Winston Duke appears as M’Baku, a character well established in the comics as an adversary to T’Challa. Here he is a rival tribal chieftain, fierce and ruthless, but with something of a moral code. Angela Bassett appears as Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda and mother of our hero. She’s freshly grieving the death of her husband, and yet is insightful where her son’s new role has to be. Forest Whitaker gets a lot to do as Zuri, something of a Ben Kenobi to T’Challa, the wise elder statesman and advisor who is central to the spirituality of Wakanda. Letitia Wright appears as Shuri, the younger sister of T’Challa. She gives the role a headstrong but funny take at times, as her character is an exceptionally bright and gifted tech innovator. Her performance reminded me somewhat of Q from the Bond films.
Martin Freeman reprises his role as American operative Everett Ross, more capable and less comic relief than his counterpart from the comics, though the character does give us some levity as things go along. Ross is calm under pressure, a bit wide eyed and fish out of water when he gets to see the wonders of Wakanda, but a professional through and through, and I like the dynamic of respect that develops between Ross and T’Challa as the story goes along.
This is the first time I’ve seen Danai Gurira in anything. She’s a big part of The Walking Dead, and the actress has quite an eclectic background herself. She plays the pivotal role of Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, a traditionalist in her thinking. She’s a capable leader, a fighter but also a tactical and strategic thinker, thoroughly dangerous when she must be, stoic much of the rest of the time, but with spirit. Her take on the character feels very grounded with where the character’s roots are. The character is one resolute in her duty and responsibilities, and the actress makes her compelling to watch.
Lupita Nyong’o gets a great role as Nakia. The character has a romantic history with T’Challa, but has taken a different path in life, into the world of the spy as a War Dog. She’s undercover in a neighbouring nation when we first meet her, undertaking a mission that’s personal and principled. The character is someone we get invested in as another strong woman- really, the film is peopled by a lot of strong women- and the actress gives her a lot of depth in how she plays her.
For a film with technically three villains tied to the Panther’s history (I would love to see how they handle Achebe in a sequel), the one with the most to do is also one whose agenda is not so black and white, but understandable. Erik Killmonger has history and ties to Wakanda, both in the comics and in this film, and has had a rough life of his own. He’s a strategic thinker, patient in what he wants to do, but at the same time forceful when he sees the need. Killmonger believes that Wakanda’s advances should be used in a more revolutionary, forceful way, skewing racial politics, than T’Challa, whose perspective is a peaceful one. It’s a fascinating counterbalance between characters, rather like the Charles Xavier-Magneto dynamic. Michael B. Jordan, who previously played the Human Torch in the misfire that was the last Fantastic Four film, and who’s worked with Coogler before, gives the character a ruthless, menacing energy, yet also allows us to see and appreciate his perspective. This is not a world conquering tyrant, but someone with legitimate concerns, whose tactics are what crosses the line.
Chadwick Boseman has already had an outstanding record in film, having had played Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up, and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. He debuted as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War, making quite an impression as the enigmatic young prince thrust into the leadership of his country as a result of the events of that film. Here the character is new to the role of king, freshly grieving the death of his father, facing the responsibilities to his country and the challenges of other interested parties. He captures the qualities of T’Challa perfectly- the wise and principled man of peace who plays his cards close to the proverbial vest, keeping his options open and thinking ahead. T’Challa finds himself dealing with kingship and the direction of his country- does he continue its quiet isolation from the rest of the world or does he engage with the world? Boseman’s take on the role strikes the right balance of a man coming to grips with the weight of power and responsibility, and coming into his own as a result of it. It’s a masterful performance, one that continues the actor’s track record of exceptional work.
Black Panther is yet another exciting entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe, and one that is thoughtful in how it carries out its story. It doesn’t shy away from elements like race, class, social status, and ideology, but instead uses those elements as foundations for its narrative. With cinematography and production values that bring a fantastic hidden kingdom to vivid life, the film nonetheless strongly depends on an exceptional cast and their spot-on characterization of their roles. It’s a splendidly entertaining film in and of its own.