Going into Black Panther, I have to be honest, I was nervous. Exalted audiences and approving critics confirm the hype: Black Panther’s opening weekend box office numbers has usurped 2012’s The Avengers as the top-grossing domestic opening for a Marvel movie at $235 million, and the picture has a 97 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
When it comes to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), it just seems like my thumb is rarely on the pulse. Everybody loved the irreverent camp of Thor: Ragnarok, for example, whereas I literally walked out of the theater after 20 long minutes. I worried that if I didn’t like Black Panther, it might prove I have no soul. Perhaps I’d stop in the theater’s restroom afterward, look in the mirror and find my curmudgeon-face cast no reflection. Long story short, the worry was for naught; I liked Black Panther a lot, and I assume that all of you will, too.
The picture is directed by Ryan Coogler, whose previous works include Creed (2015) and Fruitvale Station (2014). Chadwick Boseman (42, Get on Up) stars as T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, rightful heir to the throne of the fictional land of Wakanda. As we learn, Wakanda appears to the outside world as an impoverished East African country, but in fact, its mountains are rich with a precious metal called vibranium, making it the most technologically advanced civilization of all time. This is the stuff that Captain America’s shield is made out of! (Comic book nerds are falling out of their chairs to inform me.) Out of a fanatical commitment to peace, the Wakandan people have built an invisible cloak around their city, and so it has been for eons. By now, the rules of movie logic should reasonably inform you that such well-worn traditions are made to be toppled. Sit tight.
In Black Panther, we are gifted with a phenomenal, inspired and almost exclusively African American cast. There’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Black Panther’s precocious ex-girlfriend and human rights advocate, his friend W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya), The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira as a fierce general, T’Challa’s sister and chief technology expert Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the list goes on.
But never mind the heroes; what excites me most about Black Panther are its layered and satisfying villains. Andy Serkis appears in the flesh to reprise his role in the MCU as Ulysses Klaue, complete with a prosthetic hand cannon fueled by vibranium and a gleeful penchant for violence. (How he gets away with shooting a man in the back of the head in a PG-13 romp, the world may never know.) This is a chaotic evil brute after my own heart, but it’s Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger who elevates this picture to something really special. So often, villains in these stories are motivated by “power” or a flimsy nothing, but not so here. Orphaned from his Wakandan father and left to fend for himself in America, Killmonger’s thirst for revenge makes so much sense that by the end of the picture, I scarcely knew where to place my loyalties.
Black Panther doesn’t entirely escape the trappings of its genre. Wakanda (allegedly inspired in part by Blade Runner?) looks muddled and fake, while the characters often appear as cartoon cutouts against endless green screens. The humor’s mostly dumb and the action sequences feel at times indistinguishable from their car commercial tie-ins. Still, all of this I can forgive, because I believe in these characters and I am moved by their plight. Even soulless, Easter-egg hating film snobs like me can find a lot to admire in Black Panther.
Black Panther continues at the AMC 12.