Chadwick Boseman Strikes Black and Proud as Marvel’s African King
DIRECTED BY RYAN COOGLER/2018
With Marvel Studios movies now numbering into the high teens, with no sign of giving up their cultural dominance, it’s interesting to watch the critical community slowly come around on them (eeeeeever so slowly). This beloved “cinematic universe” has gone from being perpetually dismissed as brainless noise to begrudgingly acknowledged as noteworthy, on a case by case basis. The line often heard now is some variation on, “I’d never give the time of day to a Marvel movie were it not for (fill in the blank).” Taika Waititi. James Gunn. Scott Derrickson. Ryan Coogler. Black representation.
Which brings us to Black Panther. For years, Marvel took heat for neglecting to introduce the classic character on screen. The excuse came from within: It simply wasn’t time. Apparently, what it was time for, was other “b” and even “c” level characters, like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, “z” level characters, receiving the blockbuster treatment. “Where, oh where, Marvel”, asked the socially minded geeks, “is the battling King of Wakanda??”
The short answer: He was waiting. Waiting for just the right moment, both onscreen and off, to emerge from the shadows. And emerge he does, claws gleaming, tech glowing, putting evil on the run. It’s more like he lunges from the shadows, pouncing onto the filmic landscape at just the right moment, as the world is truly ready for and in need of a strong, wise and formidable black superhero christened “superstar”.
Too many terrific supporting characters is, however, a great problem for any movie to have, particularly one such as this, that’s dedicated itself so entirely to immersive world building via incredible production design and amazing costumes.
Would the impact that Black Panther is making (even pre-release) be as monumental had Marvel not waited? Waited until their own brand was at peak level, making the trumpeted addiction of a very important African character to the universe, all the more pronounced? Black Panther may not be the first black superhero with his own movie (Meteor Man, Blankman) or even the first black Marvel superhero with his own movie (1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, was actually the first respectable Marvel film), but this… this is somehow different. Somehow, Black Panther, right here and right now, is the one that matters. Marvel and Disney can whip up a lot of hype, but they can still only do so much. This is some righteous fair trade organic buzz going on.
Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa, the prince of a high tech future country that’s been hiding in plain sight in the heart of Africa. Welcome to Wakanda, a world unto itself, and in many ways the true central focus of this film. Sealed away via holograms and camouflage, the buildings and transit of Wakanda more closely resembles Star Wars’ Coruscant than anywhere else on earth. On the brink of becoming Wakanda’s king, T’Challa spends the film grappling with this transition of taking his murdered father’s place (a tragedy witnessed in Captain America: Civil War). Also, he has to suit up as Black Panther and beat up some baddies. As king, the role of the Panther simply comes as part of the job. Boseman proves to be a perfect choice for the role as adapted. Stoic yet a little green, confident yet a little uncertain, Boseman’s T’Challa proves to be an excellent, grounding presence throughout.
Yet, it must be said, that as a character, T’Challa himself proved far more compelling in Captain America: Civil War, where he was given a more powerful arc. Here, although he’s the title character and ostensibly the lead, the Black Panther is chronically upstaged by the myriad of terrific supporting characters. Too many terrific supporting characters is, however, a great problem for any movie to have, particularly one such as this, that’s dedicated itself so entirely to immersive world building via incredible production design and amazing costumes. Cutting some mean silhouettes are Danai Gurira as warrior woman Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o as the formidable Nakia, and Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s ace techie little sister. All three of these characters steal the show throughout. That’s barely scratching the surface of this fantastic cast, and not yet mentioned are any of the males.
Also on hand are an intriguing Daniel Kaluuya, fresh from his star turn in Get Out; Winston Duke as the head of a neighboring tribe that act like gorillas; Angela Bassett as the wizened Ramonda; Forest Whitaker as a Wakandan elder; and Andy Serkis returning to the MCU as the psychotic Ulysses Klaue, previously seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Martin Freeman also resumes a previously seen role as CIA know-it-all Everett K. Ross, who quickly is thrust into the role of audience surrogate, as he spends most fo the film having his mind blown by the awesome reality that is the technological marvel of the country of Wakanda. The character’s function in the story is understandable, if not nearly as necessary as the film seems to the think. So, we get a whole lot of Agent Ross in this movie.
More understandable in his sustained presence is director Ryan Coogler’s go-to actor, Michael B. Jordan, as the film’s primary villain, Erik Killmonger. For the part, the Creed-bulked Jordan must sport hundreds of blister bumps all over his chest and arms. The conflict he brings to Wakanda is, frankly, a surprising one, not entirely what one would expect in the presumed first film in this series. Before Wakanda can come out of the shadows, it must first work out some past issues. This allows the movie to both stay true to the longstanding comic book notions of this ridiculously technologically advanced monarchy, but also push those notions into the 21st century.
All of this comes off the shoulders of directer Ryan Coogler, who’s short list of previous films includes Creed and Fruitvale Station. Coogler doesn’t set the world on fire with any particular filmmaking flair here, but he does a very respectable job of staying within the expected parameters of what a Marvel Studios movie is and isn’t. There are a handful of semi-cringey moments on his behalf, such as an upside-down shot that proceeds to correct itself, all for the symbolic read of it. But mostly, Coogler gets the job done as prescribed, and then some: The characters are brilliantly cast, the performances are tonally in keeping with each other and the rest of the film, and the world of Wakanda and its costumes are unforgettable.
For a black character created by a couple of white men (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) alongside of their many other now-iconic comic book heroes, it must be said that Black Panther’s 2018 movie rollout and handling is about as progressive as his 1966 comics rollout was. Unlike in comic books, however, where the character has never been able to sustain an ongoing series for the long haul (not unlike Ant-Man, Dr. Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy), this movie is destined to make a mark. A deep, proud, precisely figured claw mark. Critics agree: Black Panther represents it’s world, it’s people, and their African culture, both real and fabricated, with deadly cat-like precision.