By Billy Jepma ’18
From the very first frame, “Black Panther” feels like something new. Everything we’ve come to associate with the ever-evolving superhero genre is still there, but director and co-writer Ryan Coogler uses these familiar puzzle pieces in ways that seem new and subversive
Unlike many of Marvel’s other films, the world of “Black Panther” feels movingly tangible. Yes, Wakanda is very much a fictional place, but in the context of the story at play here, it becomes something so much more than a mere fantasy landscape.
Wakanda is a place of idealism, of progress and of power, a stunning mixture of African culture and high fantasy. Coogler invites his audience into a world that is distinctly unfamiliar yet welcoming nonetheless.
It is this balancing act that “Black Panther” manages so well during the entirety of its two-hour running time. This is not only T’Challa’s story––which is brought to life by a moving performance from Chadwick Boseman––but also the story of all the people he surrounds himself with.
Indeed, “Black Panther’s” supporting cast arguably steals the show from the hero himself, as their colorful personalities and motivations make them each stand out in the limited screen time they are given.
Lupita Nyong’o is predictably fantastic as Nakia, an old friend of T’Challa’s. She heightens every scene she’s in, and her chemistry with her co-stars is infectious and exciting to watch evolve with each consecutive scene.
A similar statement can be said of Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s 16-year old genius sister, Shuri. Wright delivers some of the best lines in the film, and is a consistent scene-stealer with her easy charisma and addictive likability.
Danai Gurira as Okoye––the fierce leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces group––and Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi––an old friend and ally of T’Challa––are also notable highlights, and each of them make great use of every moment they are given on screen.
However, as compelling as the cast is, and as stirring as T’Challa’s personal journey of self-discovery is, “Black Panther’s” greatest success may come from its antagonist, Michael B.
Jordan’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, an extremist with a uniquely personal vendetta against T’Challa and everything he represents.
Marvel films have had clear and continuous issues with their villains, and have rarely been able to set-up an antagonist who possesses an appeal beyond an immediate visual menace. That changes with “Black Panther.”
From his first introduction, Jordan’s Killmonger feels different, more nuanced, more threatening, more…human. He is the villain of the film, undoubtedly, and his actions are not difficult to condemn, but it is his personal motivations that lead to his powerful success as a character.
More often than not, a good villain is defined both by their role as a darker reflection of the hero and by the validity, or lack thereof, of their motivations. Killmonger succeeds in both ways, and is one of those rare villains whose motivations, while extreme, are eager and content to occupy a moral grey area.
While the basic narrative of “Black Panther” is engaging, T’Challa’s personal journey is nothing audiences have not seen before in some form or anything. As such, it is ultimately the film’s remarkable cast of characters that give the plot its life.
In broad strokes, “Black Panther” is more of the same, but in the often overlooked subtleties of the story, the film is a breathtaking labor of love by Coogler, his cast, his crew, and everyone involved in the production.
However, the film does suffer from some odd pacing issues that cause the film’s momentus to slow down at times, and it can also fall victim to Marvel’s occasional over-reliance on CGI, as there are moments that come across as more animated than intended.
Still, nearly everything about “Black Panther” fires on all cylinders. It delivers a cinematic experience that offers everything audiences have come to expect from a big-budget superhero flick while also surprising them with subversions they have been eagerly awaiting.