Black Panther (2018)

18 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s no secret that “Black Panther” was going to be a big box-office hit. Ever since Chadwick Boseman’s African badass T’Challa clawed his way through “Captain America: Civil War,” fans were wondering when they would see him again in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Would they have to wait for “Avengers: Infinity War”? Nope. Along came director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (who made the excellent “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”) to give them a stand-alone dramatic action-thriller, simply titled “Black Panther.” But what was it that kept movie theater audiences coming back to it?

The answer, I’m afraid, doesn’t warrant much of an analysis. Everyone knows it—it’s because “Black Panther” is REALLY freaking good.

What’s especially impressive is that the previous MCU entry was “Thor: Ragnarok,” which was overall a fun, silly comedy (standing out among the other MCU movies which are mostly serious with comedic elements) and mostly poked fun at itself. “Black Panther,” on the other hand, is played almost 100% straight. It has a goofy moment here or there (mostly having to do with one of the key villains, played by Andy Serkis), but even then, it’s not forced in an attempt to wake the audience up if they were getting too bored. (The humor mostly comes from the human-interest-like interactions among the characters.) “Black Panther” didn’t need forced comic relief to be “good”—it just had to be GOOD in order to be “good.”

But maybe “good” isn’t enough to completely get across how I feel about “Black Panther.” Let me put it this way—I’m a big fan of “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” my two favorite MCU movies, and I think “Black Panther” is every bit as good as those two (if not better).

“Black Panther” is more or less self-contained (though there are a couple slick callbacks to one or two MCU elements—don’t forget the usual after-credits scene). There’s no origin story to show us how this superhero, T’Challa/Black Panther (again played by Boseman), became who he is, but it is the story of an important time that allowed the character to understand the highs and lows of becoming who he is. It’s more or less a “real” story, with many twists and turns among conflicting issues and a few extra details delivered along the way. Oh, and there are some bombastic CGI blockbuster-appropriate battles too. The film has it all, it makes for a great time at the movies and one of my (and several moviegoers’) favorite films of the year so far.

What else does it have? In my opinion, it also has the best MCU villain by far. Let’s face it, Loki is fun, but he’s more of a clown that wants what he wants. And Michael Keaton’s Vulture (of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) is sympathetic only to a point. But for “Black Panther,” we have Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who’s becoming director Coogler’s trademark actor, having starred in “Fruitvale” and “Creed”). He has revenge on his mind and he’s a red-blooded killing machine, but when you learn more about him, you understand why he acts the way he does throughout the film. You see, Wakanda, where most of the key characters reside and T’Challa is ascending to the throne, is a hidden, independent African nation with many secrets that could benefit the rest of the world, including the most highly advanced technology that assists Black Panther and his companions, such as scientist sister Shuri (the scene-stealing Letitia Wright), superspy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), on their missions. Killmonger is appalled that Wakanda’s leaders keep the nation’s magnificence to itself when its resources could help thousands of millions of people in need or maybe even the entire population of the world.

The guy isn’t someone you want to mess with and at times, he needs to be taken down. But there’s also more to him than what I’ve already said about him, and by the end, he’s the best villain because he wants different things for complex reasons and will take drastic measures in order to do so.

And that’s what makes the best MCU movies so great (I’m moving away from the word “good” this time). In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a hero who wants to do good is conflicted because the answers aren’t so easy. In “Black Panther,” T’Challa learns that same lesson, but there’s also more for him to learn, because he’s become King. He learns the hard way that the most difficult task in ruling a nation is to also be a good person. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Everything leads up to a huge battle between T’Challa’s loyal subjects and Killmonger’s growing army. It’s a lot of fun and visually pleasing, but…come on, we already knew that was going to be the case. But I won’t fault it for being done well either.

What have I left out? Two things. One is, the rest of the supporting cast is spectacular, including Forest Whitaker as T’Challa’s wise uncle Zuri, Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Queen Ramonda, Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi, Martin Freeman as a trustworthy CIA agent who gets in on the action eventually, and Andy Serkis hamming it up as unethical mercenary Ulysses Klaue. The whole ensemble cast is especially incredible. The other is, Wakanda itself. Just when I think there’s no other visually-pleasing cinematic world to take me to, I marvel (forgive the pun) at the attention to detail given to this otherworldly place. Wakanda may join Hogwarts and Middle Earth as the great movie locales of the 21st century.

We all knew “Black Panther” was going to be good, but I’m not entirely sure we knew it was going to be THIS good. And yet, here we are. And we keep coming back to it after it graced us with its presence on DVD/Blu-Ray, and the year isn’t over yet! I’m certain people will still talk about it at the end of the year and maybe even after that. I know I will.

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