Black Panther Review: No Spoiler Edition
When the first trailer for Black Panther aired during the College Football Playoff National Championship game 2017, I can say my mind was off the game and geared towards February 2018. Fast forward to now. The world seems more divided on how to deal with topics of race, beauty in diversity, and ‘wokeness’ in general. However all I can say is ‘it’s about damn time!’ Ever since the Marvel Comics Universe, MCU, touched down with Iron Man, they have changed the game for superhero movies on the big screen for the last 18 years. The hype train was real when we were able to see Black Panther in action in Captain America Civil War, and I was not disappointed. For many people, Captain America: Civil War was their first look at T’Challa, aka the Black Panther and the ultra futuristic and secret country of Wakanda. My absolute favorite moment of that film was when the captain of the Dora Milaje stared down Black Widow and commanded her to “Move. Or you will be moved.” She was tall, bald, regal, and powerful. That was the most powerful moment for me, and I was ready for a feature length film filled with nothing but Wakandans. I would see women like her in magazines, but to watch it live at the time was game changing for me.
My friends and I had decided to do a photo shoot to celebrate this movie. It was a blast doing research on different styles and mirroring what would fit best with our personalities. Even for some who weren’t of African descent, and dressed in all black as a show of respect, it was an amazing project.
After the screening and quick surf on the web, I was glad to see we weren’t the only people who had this idea. Black Panther is the celebration of Afro-Futurism and the viewer can see the research and dedication done to make this one of the best MCU movies since Iron Man. I can’t think of any other movie in recent memory where black people everywhere felt a need to come dressed in their best Africana clothes. Most people I know only dress their best for church or special functions. So without further ado let’s get into this review!
The Black Panther team brought the age-old question “what if Africa was never colonized?” Due to Vibranium, a very durable and powerful metal from space, the surrounding tribes were able to build the weapons and technology needed to defend and hide their resources from others. What was translated on screen was a series of Afro-futuristic, Africana influenced buildings, fashion, jobs, and a strong adherence to African based cultural traditions. Their isolationism did not heavily borrow from western ideals on fashion or infrastructure because they had no need of it. The country was a utopia of Afrocentric designs and architecture.
There are three main sections of Wakanda we explored. The city, the plains, and the mountains each showcased a different aspect of Wakandan life and made me believe it could be real. Every tribe had a different fighting style reminiscent of their regions, and explored how vibranium enhanced their clothing and weaponry. The Dora Milaje wore fully covered, functional armor and fought as a cohesive unit using vibranium spears, while the Border Tribe used their Basotho blankets as high tech shields and could block enemies. Each tribe showcased different fashion statements from real cultures all around Africa. For instance, the Basotho blankets the Border Tribe wore are worn by the Lesotho people in real life. The mask we see Killmonger wear in the trailers are known as Mgbedike masks. They are commonly used in Igbo rituals, while his scarifications resemble those seen in Musuri and Surma tribes in Ethiopia.
I’ve talked it over with my friends and they say Wakanda reminded them of Sakar from Thor: Ragnarok. I will attribute this to the fact Wakanda is so advanced it has caught up with the alien worlds we have seen in the MCU. Compared to other worlds in the MCU, Wakanda feels alive, while others feel like set pieces. For instance we have seen Asgard in three Thor movies, yet we as an audience cannot connect with the people there. We cannot imagine the lives of everyday Asgardians, because those movies have not taken the time for us to be invested with Thor’s home world. With Wakanda we see a thriving country, which feels alive and real to the viewer. Wakanda was one of my most favorite places to see, and I cannot wait to go back there in future films.
In most MCU films you have one or two actors that really steal the show. Black Panther is unique in that every character grabbed my attention. This all-star cast was a delight to watch as they interacted with each other. I never had any questions about characters and their motivations because the movie took the time to let us know them without an exposition dump. You could point to any one of the casts and I would be able to give you a concise summary of their past, and what they hoped to achieve by the end of the movie. There are many characters in the MCU whose personal motivations are either too simplistic outside of being typecast to drive the plot forward, or so confusing one would not be able to explain it to me to this day. Black Panther breaks the mold by bringing complex characters together to reach a common goal.
Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan are by far the MCU’s best hero versus villain dichotomy. Their fight isn’t just personal to themselves but their fight is philosophical as well. I found myself fully empathizing with Killmonger as I got to know him throughout the movie. Most MCU villains are evil, just for the sake of it. They are motivated by power, money, and greed, but we do not empathize with the majority of them. Even the most popular one, Loki, needed three movies to deliver his best performance by far. Michael B. Jordan (Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger) knocks it out the park in this movie and there were moments when I was hyped to see him on screen rather than Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa).
Every woman on screen slayed. Aside from the Amazon warriors in Wonder Woman, I never felt more proud to be a black woman. They did not play the damsel in distress, or the scorned lover, or any role that required playing sidekick to T’Challa. Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia) was the love interest to T’Challa, but stood as his equal and her character was defined by her own personal goals. Danai Gurira (Okoye) plays the general of the Dora Milaje and absolutely kills her role. She was beautiful, bald, and an absolute badass. If I had seen a woman like her on screen when I was growing up I wouldn’t have had so many reservations on shaving my head. Letitia Wright (Shuri) was an absolute joy to watch on screen. She’s T’Challa’s 16-year-old little sister and head of Wakanda’s entire science division. She provides the king with all his upgraded tools and as shown in the movie helps to upgrade Wakanda’s technology in everyday life.
I did feel that Martin Freeman (Agent Ross) was wasted in this movie. I understand he was the glue that tied the events of Captain America: Civil War to Black Panther for the non-committal MCU moviegoer. However if the MCU were not so focused on connecting all their franchises for Infinity Wars then Black Panther would have stood as a stronger stand alone movie.
Black Panther is amazing because it deviates from the MCU’s usual hero’s journey. Many critics have said most MCU movies follow the Iron Man formula. Our hero finds themselves in dire circumstances, usually of their own making, has to learn how to use their gifts to become the hero they were meant to be, and beat the bad guy. I’m over simplifying this formula, but recall that Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Dr. Strange follow a very similar hero's journey. In none of those movies do you ever try to see the world from the villain's’ point of view, or find yourself thinking about the overall philosophy of what each movie was trying to tell you, if any.
Black Panther is unique in that T’Challa is already the Black Panther and King of Wakanda. We have seen from Civil War and throughout this movie he does not struggle or need to overcome some personal vice to become the man he needs to be. His struggle is maneuvering the politics of Wakanda and the threat of Killmonger and Klaue. It’s more Game of Thrones than our typical action-adventure milieu we’ve come to expect from Marvel.
There are few twists and turns that do make some moments predictable, but for me, those are only a few of the flaws with the movie. I had to keep reminding myself that Black Panther acts as a bridge until Avengers Infinity Wars. Every movie the MCU puts out leads to this movie, so every vital character that needs to be present in that movie will be protected by plot armor. However, this flaw was created by the MCU and its need to build its extensive universe for the ultimate culmination of all of its movies. I wished Black Panther could have acted as its own entity entirely to put forth a stronger story, but I am still in love with the final product and the sequel could not come soon enough!