Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Black Panther

Grade : A+ Year : 2018 Director : Ryan Coogler Running Time : 2hr 14min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

There’s an awful lot to unpack about “Black Panther,” but one thing that isn’t in dispute is how damn awesome Ryan Coogler’s film is. The director of “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” has been building to this with each film, and he brings the sense of detail for character and story from those films over to Marvel’s universe, and he knocks it out of the park with a strong sense of action and theme that is great fun to watch. Even though Prince T’Challa was first seen in “Captain America: Civil War,” this is his first solo outing, and it’s one of Marvel’s best, in that department.

T’Challa is the new king of Wakanda, an African country that seems, on the outside, like a third-world country, but has more to it than meets the eye. Long ago, a meteor made of vibranium landed in Africa, and five tribes circled it to founded Wakanda. The past kings of the country have kept vibranium’s secrets, and their plentiful abundance of it, out of the eyes of the larger world, finding a way to cloak the country’s thriving economy and development from the rest of the world, especially since that includes advanced weapons. We got a sense of those weapons, and their capabilities, in both “Civil War” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” when we met arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and also saw T’Challa in action as Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. The events of “Black Panther” take place after T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, died in a terrorist attack in “Civil War,” but sins from his father’s past will play a role in Wakanda’s future as T’Challa takes the mantle of king, and has to figure out what being Wakanda’s protector means for his role as the Black Panther.

The screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole hits a lot of the familiar “superhero origin story” beats, but infuses it with a political bent that continues to shake things up geopolitically in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is a movie about a country that has gone forward with a standing of isolationism with the outside world that has allowed it to prosper in the shadows, but for some, has seen Wakanda turn its back on its people; not just Wakandans who have left the country, but African-Americans who have lived through decades of repression at the hands of the powerful forces. In 1992, T’Chaka goes to Oakland to confront his uncle about some shady dealings he has become aware of to bring Wakandan technology to US gangs against the police. It’s a bold place to start, but it’s where everything else in the story, including Klaue’s stealing of an ancient Wakandan artifact from a British museum with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Coogler’s star in his previous films), launches from, and Coogler makes every aspect of this narrative count. Killmonger’s introduction to the story adds a fascinating wrinkle to both the story as a whole, and T’Challa’s arc throughout the film, and some of my favorite moments in this film are between Jordan and Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa) in the later part of the film. And it hasn’t been intentional for me to just be mentioning Boseman, the great young talent bringing T’Challa to life- every movie he’s been in has had him as a force of nature filled with complexity, and “Civil War” introduced us to a similar character as the son having to take the mantle of leadership from his father, and “Black Panther” raises the bar for him. He and Coogler are ideal collaborators for this character, and seeing the way Coogler builds this story, and brings out the best in his star (like he has now done with Jordan for three films in a row), and his actors, in general, is fun to watch. He’s risen to every challenge each of his films has afforded him, and I love everything he does in this film.

“Black Panther” is very standard-issue superhero movie in a lot of ways, but with Marvel finishing up its first decade of its Cinematic Universe this year, that’s not surprising. What matters is what each filmmaker, and each new addition to the cast of characters, brings to the table, and Coogler and his cast are up to the task. Coogler builds the world of Wakanda with every tool at his disposal, and it’s one of the visually impressive Marvel films to date. The production design by Hannah Beachler gives us an authentic look at what an industrialized African country might look like, and the costumes by Ruth E. Carter are marvelous to look at through the lens of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (a Coogler veteran who just became the first Oscar-nominated woman for Best Cinematography for “Mudbound”), whose depth of field in her shot compositions made his post-conversion to 3D stand out particularly well for me. I would put “Black Panther” up there with “Doctor Strange,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films with the best-looking Marvel films, and the soundtrack Coogler gives us (courtesy of composer Ludwig Goransson and executive producer Kendrick Lamar) puts it over the top in the best way possible.

What makes “Black Panther” particularly special for a Marvel film is the dynamic cast of characters. T’Challa was already interesting in “Civil War,” but “Black Panther” takes him to a new level while also showing us a familiar Marvel arc about a son having to make peace with the world his father has left him- Boseman is one of the most exciting actors around, and Marvel was wise to lock him up to one of their most compelling heroes. In Jordan’s Killmonger, Marvel has given us one of their most interesting villains, with genuine motivation beyond “we need a villain” antics that puts him up with Loki and “Guardians 2’s” Ego that gives Jordan something to dig in to befitting his previous work in Coogler’s films. More great work comes from every direction, whether it’s Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, and still a valuable warrior for the country; Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) as W’Kabi, an ally whose allegiances are up for grabs when Killmonger finds his way home; Forest Whitaker as Zuri, a family friend who is now a trusted spiritual leader in Wakanda; Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda; Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, a scientist who is basically her brother’s Q; and Danai Gurira as Okoye, one of Wakanda’s strongest military leaders. Each character- which includes Serkis’s Klaue and Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, previous additions to the MCU- has a purpose and singular personality that adds to the film’s unique mystique and style all its own. Coogler knocks this out of the park, and it gets me even more excited about what’s next on the horizon for he and his stars.

Some Thoughts After My Second Time Seeing “Black Panther”

1) I LOVE the dynamic between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is not only the best Q James Bond never had, but loves busting her brother’s balls despite him being king. If the Russo Brothers didn’t find a place for her in May’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” I may be crushed.
2) The Marvel Cinematic Universe is building some truly complex geopolitical situations into their massive world, and I’m on board. Much of this film’s story hinges on Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism and hiding their true worth from the world, and the benefits (or consequences) of breaking from that tradition. Those are lofty ideas for a superhero movie.
3) I wouldn’t be mad if Michael B. Jordan FINALLY got that Oscar nomination he was owed for “Fruitvale Station” or “Creed” for his performance as Erik Killmonger here- this is one of the richest antagonists the MCU has ever given us, and Jordan makes him fascinating to watch in every frame.
4) The action in this movie is top-notch. The hand-to-hand challenges T’Challa has to face are brutally directed by Ryan Coogler, who also builds one of the best car chases in movie history. The director of “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station” rises to the occasion. Now how long until he and Donald Glover give us a young Lando Calrissian movie? (Note to Disney- I’m willing to wait for “Black Panther 2” first. 😉)
5) The movie is beautiful to look at. Just give it all the behind-the-scenes Oscars now (including Cinematography for Rachel Morrison, who just became the first woman nominated in the category THIS year for “Mudbound”). In fact, you may want to reserve it some slots for Best Original Score (Ludwig Goransson) and Original Song (the Kendrick Lamar-produced song soundtrack is tight), as well.
6) I think my favorite thing about watching it last night, and working it this morning? All the people I’ve seen going to the theatre dressed in Dashikis and African dresses. It’s been beautiful to see people getting in touch with their heritage when going to this movie, and it’s fitting, because that’s a big part of what makes the narrative of “Black Panther” special. In a lot of ways, it’s a very standard superhero movie, but it’s the ways Coogler and his collaborators go outside the box that are going to stick with audiences.

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