Movie review: A new king — and superhero — is born in Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’

There was a lot going on in “Captain America: Civil War,” so it’s a testament both to the power of the Black Panther character and actor Chadwick Boseman’s screen presence that Black Panther was such a standout in that film. He brought a fresh perspective to the Avengers lineup and stole all the scenes he was in.

Fans have been eagerly waiting for Black Panther’s solo film, and the level of hype for this movie has been insanely huge. Both fans and critics are raving; “Black Panther” earned a glittering 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and has brought in an estimated $201 million in its opening weekend. The film’s diverse cast and timely subject matter also are significant cultural moments, and I believe those amazing box office grosses are evidence of that fact.

While “Black Panther” is still very much a Marvel film, it does feel different than what’s come before. Black Panther/T’Challa is a new type of hero in a new type of setting. I heard someone on Reddit describe the film as “Marvel meets The Lion King meets James Bond” which I feel is actually a fairly accurate description of the film’s tone. You have the royal family dynamics of “The Lion King” with some cool touches of espionage à la James Bond. The film picks up soon after the events of “Civil War,” where we witnessed the death of T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka. T’Challa is preparing to assume the throne and determine what type of leader he will become for the prosperous, technologically advanced nation of Wakanda. However, he will have to face an unexpected challenge to the throne — a threat inadvertently created by one of his father’s past choices.

One of the coolest things about “Black Panther” is its world-building. I loved everything about Wakanda, a fictional East African nation created for the Marvel comics. I loved the blend of history and technology, and how the culture honored the past and also embraced the future. The costume design on this film is also fantastic, and I loved how colorful and distinctive this world was. Wakanda felt like a real place to me.

The ensemble cast is also fantastic, with a huge cast of strong supporting characters. In addition to Boseman, who we already got to know as T’Challa in “Civil War,” we meet Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, an undercover spy (we need a spin-off film about Nakia, please, Disney!); Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces of Wakanda (another spin-off film needed!); Letitia Wright as the scene-stealing tech genius Princess Shuri; and too many others to name. I also enjoyed seeing Andy Serkis pop up again as black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue; although I love Serkis’ motion capture work, it’s always great to see him acting just as himself without a green screen. And I was surprised but pleased by how big of a role Martin Freeman had in this film as CIA member Everett K. Ross.

In the past, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized for sometimes having weak villain characters, but that isn’t the case here. Without veering into spoiler territory, Michael B. Jordan made for a fascinating, complex villain as “Killmonger.” The choices he made were wrong, but you could see how his painful, broken past drove him to this moment. It was a great performance.

There’s a lot to praise about “Black Panther,” and it’s exciting to see how audiences have responded to this film. However, I do have to say that while I enjoyed it, I walked out of the theater feeling not quite as “awed” as I had anticipated. I’m fully willing to admit that may have more to do with me than the film. I got really hyped and excited for this movie, and sometimes when you build up the hype a little too much, it’s hard for a film to live up to those lofty expectations. I was expecting it to maybe even crack my top 5 Marvel films, and as of now, it hasn’t. Still, I feel like I need to see it again to fully process the film and its themes. I’m certain it will be in the upper half of my Marvel film rankings, but I’m not confident enough to place it yet.

One of the things holding the film back just a bit (at least to me) is the pacing. I felt like it took a while to really get going (the casino in South Korea was where it really took off, I thought). While it was cool seeing T’Challa and Nakia on her undercover assignment in the jungle and T’Challa’s coronation ceremony at the beginning of the film, I think these scenes took up time that could have been devoted to moving the plot forward in a more powerful and focused way. I wanted even more interaction between T’Challa and Killmonger. I also felt that sometimes T’Challa was almost a supporting character in his own film. There are so many awesome side characters, and I wouldn’t want to take away from that, but maybe just a *little* more time could have been devoted to how much of a strong, amazing fighter Black Panther is (and as “Civil War” showed us, he IS an amazing fighter).

But maybe those issues will stand out less to me on second viewing, and I really do feel like I need to see this again. Because as referenced earlier, the “Black Panther” movie is a significant cultural moment. While it works on a surface level as a superhero film, it is important that we’re getting a big-budget film with a predominantly black cast set in an African nation. This has clearly resonated with audiences, and is filling a niche that has been neglected by Hollywood. It also tackles some heavy themes, amidst the action. *Spoiler alert!* I thought the ending was quite powerful, where T’Challa realized that maybe Wakanda’s philosophy of hiding away from the world was wrong and they needed to help others in need — a truth that Killmonger helped him to see, even though Killmonger’s philosophy of violence was wrong. And Killmonger’s death is a gut-punch of a scene, where he asks to die as a free man and not a prisoner. *End spoiler!*

So in conclusion, it will be interesting to see how this film is evaluated as part of the MCU as time goes on. For right now, I definitely recommend that you see it, think about it, and discuss it. I feel there was room to make the film even stronger, but that doesn’t take away from the moment. And, of course, I’m eagerly awaiting Black Panther’s appearance in “Infinity War.”

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