Take Captain America’s physical equal, give him Tony Stark’s resources and tech, and the complications Thor has of being a member of the royal family and you start, but only start, to get an idea about who and what the Black Panther is. After his awesome appearance in Captain America: Civil War, his solo movie started getting a lot of hype, especially in the weeks leading up to its opening day. In my opinion, as a writer, a movie fan, and a lifelong reader of comic books, the movie lives up to the hype and exceeds it on many levels. It’s a fantastic story.
T’Challa lost his father during Civil War, and then made the difficult decision to be the voice of reason and compassion near the end of the movie, while still mourning his loss and watching Captain America and Iron Man beat holy hell out of each other. That right there shows you a lot about who he is. But we explore that in a lot more depth in his own movie.
After some background set up involving espionage in California, the movie starts with T’Challa assuming the throne of his native Wakanda. Wakanda is a place that is technologically amazingly advanced, blending their science with tradition and esthetic. It can come across as hokey or clunky. In the movie, it works perfectly, and the background visuals and their approach to how they handle their tech is fantastic.
Comic book stories, at least many of the best ones, manage to echo some social issues and make a statement. This follows that tradition without making it preachy. Wakanda is noted for its isolationism, and one of the recurring points of the movie is that approach doesn’t work in the modern age, and that those with the ability to help others have an obligation to do so. That view is taken to extremes by some of the characters, but it’s a viewpoint I agree with, and it’s one that, in my opinion, certain current political leaders would do well to listen to. To quote a character near the end of the movie, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges. The foolish build barriers.” Like, say, a wall. Ok, I’m off that soapbox.
The simplest way I can sum up the plot without spoilers is this: T’Challa has to wrestle with the dual burdens of being the leader of the country and its most visible and greatest defender. He’s warned early that it’s hard for a good man to be king, and he starts learning this almost at once. From challenges to his rule to enemies conspiring against him to learning some of his own heroes aren’t quite what he wanted and hoped for them to be, T’Challa goes through a lot, clashing with M’Baku (how do you take a dated and arguably racist minor villain and make them both a worthy foe and even noble? They manage it with Man-Ape here), Klaw, and Kilmonger, to feeling the demands and restrictions of his duties as ruler, T’Challa has hard decisions to make and traditions to follow. Will he lose his throne? Will he follow the secrecy that’s been part of his country’s history since the beginning? Will he manage to reach out across a divide of hate and vengeance to a troubled family member? There are a lot of twists in the story but they all work, and it’s a gripping tale from the history of Wakanda told as legend in the beginning to the triumphant ending and the two end scenes.
The visuals are stunning. It’s a great movie where there’s always something striking to see. The effects, the fights, the obligatory car chase, it’s all amazingly well done. My only complaints is a few times they get a bit too far into “unsteady cam,” an effect I blame on the first Lethal Weapon movie. Apparently, the idea is to make you think, “Wow, this fight is so intense, even the camera man is getting hit,” or something like that. It’s jarring once or twice, and a few early visuals are dark not thematically, but more in the “Wait, what just happened?” vein.
There are no bad performances in this movie. Everyone is great. Chadwick Boseman is regal and noble and dedicated as the titular Black Panther. Danai Gurira, best known until now as the bad-ass Michonne on Walking Dead, is just as tough as General Okoye. Michael B. Jordan plays a vengeance-driven and ruthlessly evil Killmonger, another flat minor character given depth and development here. Letita Wright is wonderfully entertaining as Shuri, the Panther’s kid sister and scientific genius. Andy Serkis is back as Klaw (they spell it weird for the movie) and revels in his every wicked, chaotic act. I could go on but I’d just end up naming the entire cast.
The bad guys have reasons for what they do, ranging from greed to revenge to honestly believing what they do is the best thing for the world, their country, or their family. The good guys are heroic, but believably flawed. If you accept the premise of the scientifically advanced, hidden country with its totemic defenders, the plot works perfectly, both on its own and within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ties to the rest of Marvel are minimal, but with isolationism such a big theme, that makes perfect sense. There are two end scenes, both worth staying for.
They do have a minor continuity flaw that’s never addressed. So if you consider the absence of something to be a spoiler, I guess this counts. At the end of Civil War, Captain America is in Wakanda. He’s not seen or even referenced in this movie. I get he could be off on his own, but I kinda kept waiting for some kind of reference to their “guest” or something. That’s a minor quibble in what is truly a fantastic movie.
What I liked: Damn near everything. Visually, effects wise, the story, the acting, it’s all brilliant. The heroes are believable, and even the villains make sense at the very least by their own lights. There are references to social issues throughout, which they manage to both not shy away from but not lecture about. Black Panther was fantastic, as was Shuri, Killmonger, Klaw, Okoye, and everyone else. I give them particular credit for how they did the history of Wakanda at the start of the movie.
What I didn’t: Very little. I wanted a few more nods to the Marvel Universe, especially Cap. One crucial fact of comics that the vast majority of movies and tv shows, even the great ones, seem to fail to grasp is that a hero is defined by his villains, and heroes having a big rogues gallery is a significant part of the fandom. If you kill off the villains almost as fast as you introduce them, you don’t get the history, complications, and relationships between the heroes and their opposite numbers. That’s not just in this movie, and I’ll do another piece on that soon.
All that said, I’m giving this a 4.75 out of 5. It’s not getting the full 5 for the reasons I state above. But man, it’s a great movie and it’s very worth seeing it in the theater. And at least where I was, some of the merchandise is worth getting, too. A worthy addition to the Marvel Universe, and one of their best movies yet.