Movie Review - Black Panther (Black History Month)

For Black History Month 2018, I wanted to spotlight films and even television shows that feature African-American protagonists and hopefully predominantly black casts. Two weeks ago, I reviewed the CW's Black Lightning, which is now only the second TV series about a super-hero with a black protagonist.

This past decade, Marvel Comics and DC Comics have had numerous movies adapting their super-hero, comic-book characters. None of the titular characters or protagonists in any of their so-called cinematic universes have been black or people of color. The movies have introduced black super-heroes, but none have been the protagonist. This movie changes that.

Of course, people who are old enough will remember Michael Jai White in Spawn (1997), the first film to feature a black person portraying a major comic-book hero. The following year, we got Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998). That film was so successful it generated two sequels, ending in 2004. Blade was a Marvel Comics character but owned by New Line Cinema. However, Marvel Comics was purchased by the Walt Disney Company several years later, which changed the trajectory of comic book movies.

The Marvel Comics character known as Black Panther predates the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966, but only by a couple of months. The titular comics were more African and not as American as the Black Panther Party. There seemingly isn't any connection, except for one tangential one made here by director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. The Black Panther Party was based in Oakland, California, the hometown of Coogler himself. Coogler can't help but open and close this film in that city. That's where the tangential connection stops. The Black Panther Party was about combating police brutality but in a militant way. There was also an anti-imperialist position that the party took to the U.S. government, which is echoed here, but ultimately this movie argues against any kind of militant or aggressive action toward the U.S. government or any government.

This is only Ryan Coogler's third feature. He was hired to make this film in 2016, several months before his 30th birthday. Reportedly, the budget is around $200 million. It's rare for a black filmmaker to be given the helm on this kind of big-budget, action blockbuster, especially a black filmmaker as young as Coogler is. He joins a short list of men like John Singleton, Tim Story and F. Gary Gray who are black men who have directed blockbusters while only in their 30's. Of them all, Coogler's film is poised to do better in the box office.

Coogler's film has the benefit of being the 18th installment in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2011, a MCU movie has not done less than $176 million in an over-all, theatrical run, which can be around 100 days in theaters. This movie made $176 million in just its first three days. In fact, the movie made $201 million in its first three days, which would put it in the top five of all MCU films. Unfortunately, I don't think this movie is as entertaining as any of those top five MCU films. Specifically, it doesn't clear the bar of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), which still stands as the best MCU film, action-wise and character-wise.

Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up and 42) stars as T'Challa, a prince of Wakanda, a fictional country in the middle of Africa. T'Challa was introduced in Captain America: Civil War. In that movie, a group of humanitarian workers from Wakanda had been killed in Lagos, Nigeria, during a fight involving Captain America and the Avengers. The United Nations invited T'Chaka, the king of Wakanda to Vienna, Austria, to sign the accords that would oversee the Avengers, but a terrorist bombing kills T'Chaka.

This movie takes place one week after that bombing. Now, T'Challa is next in line to become king of Wakanda. The very opening of this film, before we go to Oakland, is an animated sequence explaining the history of Wakanda, which is that it's the only African country not colonized by any other country. The reason is because it possesses vibranium, an alien metal that allowed the Wakanda people to develop technology so advanced that they must shield or hide it from the world.

Functionally, Wakanda is similar to Asgard in Thor (2011) or Themyscira in Wonder Woman (2017). It's a hidden, magical land, home to warriors, one of which is dispatched to the U.S. or Americans somewhere. Usually, that dispatched person is royalty or of royal descent. An issue is raised when that royalty or heir to the throne is challenged by someone else who wants it. In Thor specifically, the challenger is the adopted brother and then in Thor: Ragnarok, the challenger is his sister.

Here, the challenger is a cousin. Of course, a lot of stories revolving around royalty always has to include a challenge or some plot to steal the throne from the heir. As I watched this movie, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Lion King (1994). Obviously, both this one and that 1994 animated classic are set in Africa. Both involve a plot about a relative trying to take the throne, but the clencher for me was a scene where T'Challa talks to T'Chaka from beyond the grave, which reminded me of when Simba talked to Mfusa from beyond the grave, except in The Lion King, it was more visually imaginative with Mfusa appearing in the clouds.

Michael B. Jordan (Creed and Fantastic Four) co-stars as N'Jadaka, the cousin to T'Challa. N'Jadaka aka Killmonger was exiled from Wakanda due to no fault of his own. Yet, his character is similar to Cate Blanchett's character, Hela, in Thor: Ragnarok. Hela was exiled from Asgard but she returns to take the throne and rule with an iron fist, which she does. The same goes for Killmonger. His motivations and reasoning though are more interesting than anything from Hela.

Killmonger was raised in Oakland under the name Erik Stevens  where he saw things like poverty, drugs and police brutality keep black people oppressed, not only in the U.S. but around the world. A lot of it, he attributes to what's referred to as colonization. This must mean the European colonization of the Americas, which was the impetus for the Atlantic slave trade and the main cause for the African diaspora. This manifests enmity mainly at people of European descent or any white person. Killmonger refers to it as white people having stolen African resources and he's angry about it.

His plan is to take the vibranium from Wakanda and the technology derived from it and sell it to arms dealers and militias, so they can possibly overthrow countries controlled by white people. He says he wants Wakanda to be an empire that controls the world. The irony is that he wants to become what he hates, a colonizer. He wants to do colonization because it was done to black people. Yet, an interesting debate arises about whether Wakanda should have intervened sooner to stop the colonization of Africa, or if maintaining isolationism to protect only Wakanda was the best course of action.

That's an interesting debate that the movie tosses up. However, it gets bogged down with Killmonger's plan, which fails to consider one crucial point and which the movie never acknowledges. Killmonger has to be aware of Captain America and the other Avengers, including Tony Stark, the Hulk, Thor, Vision and Scarlet Witch. The Avengers stopped the alien invasion of Chitauri. For Killmonger not to think that the Avengers would also stop him if he tried to colonize or conquer the Earth is rather naive or short-sighted, or it's an over-estimation of vibranium and its abilities. It's also bothersome that T'Challa doesn't think to contact the Avengers or at least warn them, once he realizes what the evil plan is.

What's also a little idiotic is the evil plan is predicated on the fact that T'Challa would accept the challenge to the throne. In order to enact his evil plan, Killmonger needs to be the king himself and in order to be the king, he has to challenge T'Challa to a ceremonial fight. Technically, T'Challa didn't have to accept. Once he does accept and gets his butt kicked, then all of a sudden, it's a problem. His winning the fight seems more about luck than overall skill. They're pretty evenly matched. The only difference is Killmonger wants revenge upon the whole world, which T'Challa knew going into the challenge, so he was a fool for accepting it in the first place.

Winston Duke (Person of Interest and Modern Family) plays M'Baku, the leader of the Wakanda tribe that lives in the mountains. He challenges T'Challa for the throne early in the film. His reasons are because he claims T'Challa didn't protect the king, as if he were supposed to somehow know the future and be able to stop the bombing in Vienna. M'Baku also doesn't like that T'Challa's younger sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright (Cucumber and Black Mirror), was in charge of the technology, which is either ageist or sexist, but what would T'Challa have done if M'Baku had won the challenge? What would M'Baku have done as king?

Unanswered questions like that start to indicate the gaps Coogler has in establishing Wakanda and the people in it. At the top of which, the idea that a physical fight would determine who is king is completely asinine and barbaric. Another villain, Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: The Force Awakens), calls the Wakanda people "savages" and that's meant to be such a slur, but for the Wakanda people to condone those fights as a way of determining leadership, as opposed to say democratic elections, is nothing short of savage.

Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Nakia, a Wakanda spy who performs rescue missions in other countries. Danai Gurira (Mother of George and The Walking Dead) plays Okoye, the leader of the Wakanda army. Both are good, action stars here, but the movie doesn't do a good enough job of establishing them as individuals outside the plot, or if it does, it's to lesser degrees than Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok or Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy.

For example, Okoye is supposed to be the lover of W'Kabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out and Black Mirror), but it's literally just one line in the film. Whatever relationship they have isn't developed nearly enough or at all. We don't even see them kiss. They haven't built it up, so that when a crucial moment occurs in battle between the two, it falls flat. This is indicative of how there is a lack of emotional punch to this as compared to something like Captain America: Civl War or even Coogler's previous film Creed. There is no relationship here that I felt at all in any where nearing the relationship central in Creed.

Rated PG-13 for action, violence and rude gesture.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.

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