“Black Panther” may have revitalized my hope that superhero movies can be enjoyable, thought-provoking and worth watching.
Wakanda, the fictional country and hidden kingdom of “Black Panther,” is reminiscent of Asgard in the sense that it is hidden and imbued with a sense of magic and futuristic technology, but “Black Panther” has far more depth than any of the Thor movies because it is rooted in reality, and it forces the viewer to consider both modern and historical social ills (and there are no ridiculous rainbow bridges).
“Black Panther” tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly appointed King of Wakanda, a country that appears to be “third world” to the outside but is secretly an isolationist technological marvel and African paradise. Soon after his father’s death, T’Challa learns horrifying secrets about his father’s past, and soon comes face to face with his cousin Erik (Michael B. Jordan), an exiled Wakandan who grew up on the streets of Oakland. Erik soon challenges both T’Challa and Wakanda’s protectionist policies, wishing to liberate black folk all over the world by force instead of hiding within Wakandan borders.
In this way, “Black Panther” illustrates the struggle that has been present throughout black literature and black social movements, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther, to the nominal Black Panthers themselves. Does the black community respond to oppression by adopting the language of the oppressor and using force to regain control? Or does the black community use more diplomatic channels? This is the crux of the question “Black Panther” asks.
You know a film is good when you don’t know who you are rooting for (which is uncommon in superhero movies, where the good and bad guys are typically exaggerated caricatures of good and evil, with zero room for moral ambiguity). I found myself questioning whether T’Challa really should be the protagonist and the king of Wakanda after hearing Erik’s potent message, asking why Wakandans, who have so much, choose to ignore their black brothers and sisters across the world who are suffering. “Black Panther” touches other social issues as well, beyond those of the black community. One advisor to T’Challa notes that if one opens up Wakanda to the “horde” of outsiders, those outsiders will bring their problems with them and Wakanda becomes like everywhere else - clearly a reference to the refugee crisis that is currently plaguing Europe.
Outside of social commentary, “Black Panther” is great fun. See if you can spot the Stan Lee cameo! The fight scenes are fantastic and refreshing, as they make use of completely different fighting methods than we are used to in Western films (lots of effective spear usage). The film challenges stereotypes by presenting the Wakandans as highly sophisticated and technological people who use their technology to both heal and fight in novel ways. The use of a rhino with high-tech armor was, for lack of a better term, awesome. The costumes are incredible and the dances are fun to watch, and the setting was captivating - skyscrapers and labs dotted with African patterns and symbolism.
Martin Freeman is excellent as the well-meaning white man who thinks he knows everything but soon realizes he knows very little. Eventually, he joins forces with the Wakandans, and his naivety about the African nation provides great comic relief. The film has an impressive cast of black legends, from Angela Basset to Lupita N’yongo (“12 Years a Slave”) to Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”). Andy Serkis proves he is a great actor even when he is playing a human and not a gorilla or an obsessive little ghoul. The soundtrack, primarily done by Kendrick Lamar but dotted with the Weeknd and other artists, is slick, well incorporated and will definitely be stuck in my head for a while. My only complaint is that “Black Panther” runs a bit long, but overall, it’s an excellent and enjoyable film that will give little boys and girls something super fun to dress up as for Halloween this year.