By now, you’ve probably heard about the unbelievable opening weekend Black Panther has had. The first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry with a black lead, Black Panther is crushing box office records left and right. It currently has the fifth-highest opening weekend of all time, beating out Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s hard to imagine this movie won’t be the new benchmark for Marvel’s film outings. The cast is phenomenal, the action sequences are inventive, and the story has more nuance that you may expect from a huge blockbuster. If you’ve never seen one of the Marvel movies, Black Panther tries (and mostly succeeds) to be its own beast. It’s worth it for the actors alone.
Black Panther picks up just after Captain America: Civil War, a movie that worked overtime to cause drama between the Avengers while introducing both Spider-Man and Black Panther himself. In that film, T’Chaka’s father, the king of African nation Wakanda (a nation that pretends to be simple farmers, when in fact it has extremely advanced technology thanks to Vibranium), is killed in a bombing, which causes his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to spring into action alongside Marvel mainstays Iron Man and Captain America. Putting T’Challa’s tragic backstory in an earlier movie was a smart move, as his solo outing can just get to the action. When we first see T’Challa, he’s dropping in on a group of militants to save their hostages before heading to his country to be crowned king. There we meet his family, including genius sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his all-women royal guard, led by the intense Okoye (Danai Gurira).
The fully fleshed-out world of Wakanda puts Thor’s Asgard to shame. The costumes, dialect, and tribes are rich with detail. Marvel understood Black Panther was going to be a huge cultural moment, and spared no expense getting the secret country just right. I hope they are able to extend this level of care to any new worlds they build from here on out.
While Chadwick Boseman is compelling as newly-crowned Wakandan king T’Challa, I want to single out the incredible performances from Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan. As Wakandan spy and ex-girlfriend of T’Challa, Nyong’o’s Nakia rises above the usual level of Marvel sidekick, deftly holding her own in battle and never waiting around for T’Challa to save her. Jordan plays the film’s villain, American black-ops soldier Erik Killmonger (a name he gave himself based on his numerous tattoos representing his kills) with a level of humanity usually reserved for the protagonists. He brings an intensity to the character that at times threatens to overshadow T’Challa’s story arc, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
My criticisms are limited and mostly superficial. The CGI is wonky at points, like during a casino fight sequence; a few plot points strain credibility, even for a superhero movie. But these quibbles are nothing compared to what this film means for the African-American community and the future of blockbuster moviemaking. Maybe we’ll finally get a movie featuring Muslim-American superhero Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel.
I suppose I am worried about what will happen to Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War, as trailers indicate that a massive battle is fought within their borders. Hopefully the country and its citizens are not just a casualty of the Marvel Cinematic Universe conflict. I had the same concern about the Asgardians at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. But I don’t think Marvel Studios will just destroy such a moneymaker. They could make a billion dollars off a spinoff just focusing on Shuri! Overall, Black Panther is an exciting, engaging film that will leave you breathless by the time it reaches the climax. I’ll definitely be seeing it again before it leaves theaters. We are going to be hearing about this movie for years to come.
dir. Ryan Coogler
Now playing everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Capitol or your local mom & pop cineplex)