The Panther King: A Review Of Marvel's "Black Panther"
Forget Simba and the Lion King, the new King of the Jungle and of Africa is T'Challa, the Black Panther. In a ground-breaking superhero movie move—utilizing a predominantly black cast, and centering the story on a fictitious nation called Wakanda in Africa—Marvel has created a stirring origin movie that nimbly fuses character, back story, and a multi-strand narrative, with the requisite action and battle scenes. Kudos to Director Ryan Coogler, in only his third directorial outing (Fruitvale Station and Creed), for juggling all these elements with such confidence and panache. The reported record advanced sales in the USA for any MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) film will be more than justified when it officially opens this weekend (it opened on February 14 here in the Philippines).
As with any first installment, the initial parts of the film have to do with establishing and exposition. So we get, a) Why Vibronium is found in Wakanda and what they've done to transform the country into a hermit nation and keep it a global secret; and b) in 1992 Oakland, an incident involving Wakanda spies (glowing blue tattoos on the inside of their lower lip the telltale sign) which will bear heavily on the story much further on. It's only after this that we're introduced to T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as a grown man, having to assume the mantle of Wakanda ruler after the untimely death of his father.
The two major villains T' Challa has to contend with are Ulysses, a cannon-armed arms dealer (Andy Serkis) and Erik, a mercenary with a mysterious past (Michael B. Jordan). Most impressive in the film is the role of women in Wakanda, as they're either spies like Nakia (Lupita N'yongo), or head the all-female palace guard, like Okoye (Danai Gurira). Even when T'Challa goes undercover like some African James Bond, he first has to turn to his own 'Q', and that's baby sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). And I welcomed Shuri's arrival into the film, as she provides the shafts of humor, bringing charisma and a cheeky attitude to the proceedings.
Rachel Morrison, the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar for her work on Mudbound, does a great job here—turning Wakanda into a bright, vibrant African utopia, and knowing how to contrast this, when we're elsewhere, with shadows or a grainy veneer. What also intrigues me, going forward, is if this Black Panther turns out to be a great success, what it can mean casting-wise for other prestige Disney projects such as live action Mulan.
But for the meantime, we have Black Panther. It's not a perfect film; the first half could have used some editing to trim down the running time. But it does know how to sustain and end strongly. And for something so drastically different—the predominantly Black cast, and that there's no saving the USA from some otherworldly threat, but a storyline that sticks to the fate of Wakanda—it keeps the story moving along, so we're wrapped up with what is happening onscreen, instead of realizing how new this all is for the MCU.
Cover image from Black Panther