By David Josselyn
If you’ve been on a ten-year mission’s trip in a third-world country, you may have no idea what I’m talking about; for all the others, Marvel Studios continues to expand our understanding of what a super-hero comic book movie is. “Black Panther” was just released and is the final Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior to their highly anticipate Avengers sequel in May. With all the hype surrounding “Avengers: Infinity War,” it’s a wonder the “Black Panther” is getting noticed at all. However, “Black Panther” breaks stereotypes and cultural divides attracting the largest audience of any comic book movie to date. So, is “Black Panther” that good or is it just different?
A Little History
Wakanda is a land-locked African country that has isolated itself off from the rest of the world. Before the dawn of man, an asteroid consisting of vibranium, a special element not found naturally on earth, crashed into Africa. Five tribes that rose up in that area went to war over the precious metal until one person ingested a heart-flower (created by the asteroid) and took on super-human abilities; the first black panther. He united four of the tribes and they isolated themselves from the world and grew in strength, prosperity, and wisdom, while fifth tribe split off and suffered under the racial prejudices of the world. Wakanda today is more technologically advance than any civilization on the planet, but remains hidden.
Prince T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Marshall”), is about to be crowned king of Wakanda following the recent death of his father. During the ceremony, his birthright is challenged by his cousin, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Friday Night Lights”), and they agree to a duel. Erik was raised in Los Angeles and personally suffered from racism. He believes that if Wakanda revealed itself and took over the world, his people could live in peace. T’Challa, per tradition, must fight without the aid of the heart-flower and has his super-powers stripped away. Erik defeats T’Challa by throwing him over a waterfall and becomes King of Wakanda. T’Challa does not die, but powerless and with the aid of his sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright (“The Commuter,” “Black Mirror”), and mother Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett, (“Strange Days,” “Olympus Has Fallen”), must find a way to retake his throne before the King destroys the nations of the world.
Cultural History. There are multiple references to the dark history of blacks in the world which forms Erik’s motivation for world dominance. This is something T’Challa struggles with since Wakanda shielded themselves from the pain and refused to intervene when they could have made a difference. The history of our world is not pretty and while most movies never acknowledge it, “Black Panther” does not shy away.
Equivalence. Wakanda is a beautiful “what-if” example of a different history for Africa. It brings African culture into a futuristic setting if they had been a dominant world power instead of Europe. Envisioning this future shouts the message that we are all equal, we are all the same, we are all human. America’s worldview is seen from the dominant white conquerors, but it could have been flipped had the blacks of Africa experienced their own renaissance and catapulted ahead of other cultures. Just because white Europeans have dominance, does not make them superior.
Characterization. This movie had a different feel than other MCU films in that the villain had depth and relatability. The side characters, like Shuri and the fierce Okoye, played by Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead,” “Mother of George”), had layers of personality. Andy Serkis, (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Planet of the Apes” trilogy), who played villainess Ulysses Klaue without aid of motion capture, was fabulous.
Story. The tale of a prince not-yet-ready to be king trying to figure out what makes a good ruler gives opportunity to explore what it means to be human and humane. The consistent moral woven throughout the MCU; with great power comes great responsibility, is something most of us can wrestle with whether we try to avoid positions of power or embrace them.
Music. Ludwig Goransson (“Creed,” “Get Out”) composed the score meshing modern tech with African instruments supplementing the look and feel of the movie. I could not wait to own a copy for my own listening enjoyment.
Choreography. The black African culture is reflected in the ritualistic movements and dance of the coronation, duels, and fight scenes. I especially appreciated the slowed-down fight scenes when neither duelist had enhanced abilities.
Costumes and Makeup. Both categories showed beautiful cultural reflection of an advanced African nation.
I write this four days after viewing and with distance I find the things that bugged me are slipping away while the good find prominence in my memory. Although, there were still flaws.
Frenetic Fighting. This is a pet peeve of mine that is prevalent in modern movies. Too many fight scenes are filmed with close-up shots and often shown faster than actually shot. This is meant to give audiences the feel of being inside the fight. My preference would be for the camera to back up and show the entire fight, move for move. I want the fight to make sense in my head as something you could recreate in your back-yard. I highly suspect that fight scenes are no longer choreographed masterpieces, instead small, cool-looking actions pieced together. “Black Panther” is guilty of this.
CGI. The movie felt a little more finished that some others I’ve seen recently, but even still, the CGI at moments takes me out of the picture because it just looks fake.
Colorful Metaphors. There were a few too many uses of the four-letter ‘s’ word for my liking. I am fine with a movie using vulgarities when it makes sense to do so, but this one uses them at times just to use them.
This is a very important movie in modern history. Director Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) put his heart and soul into this film to break through cultural divisions. All races were created equal and it is about time we started acting like it. Some movies were obviously created to break that cultural divide, but are done at the cost of being a good film. “Black Panther” is both a good film and culturally relevant. You don’t have to watch a single MCU movie to enjoy and understand this one. It truly stands alone, but it also stands out. I am sure that over time, the flaws in the film will become important, but for now, just sit back and enjoy the ride. It is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture. On a scale of five, my lovely wife gives the film a five Princess-Q rating (she would give it a six if were not for the language); my beautiful daughter gives it five primitive weapons; and I rate the film five out of five tribes.
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