- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
“You don’t feel as real if you don’t see yourself reflected in the media” — the late African-American comics and cartoon creator Dwayne McDuffie
A few weeks ago, a very short video made the internet rounds. The viewer sees a massive poster for “Black Panther” in a movie theater and hears someone saying over and over: “All the time?!?” All the time!?!?”
Off-camera, the filmer (we assume) starts talking: “So we’re sitting here looking at this dope-ass ‘Black Panther’ poster and the conclusion we have come to (black guy in a red jacket pops in: ‘All the time!?!?’) is that this is what white people get to feel all the time! (‘All the time!? All the time!?’) Since the beginning of cinema! You get to feel empowered like this and represented.”
Another guy walks up and hugs the poster. The guy in the red coat comes back and points at the head of Chadwick Boseman, who plays the titular character. “This? This is what you feel like all the time? I would love this country TOO.” Cue peals of knowing laughter.
One wonders what those folks thought of “Black Panther,” by far the most sophisticated, moving and savvy superhero movie in the Marvel canon.
One suspects that they will see it more than once. One suspects that you will, as well.
Let’s make something quite clear: “Black Panther” feels like a new thing in the world. As former “Black Panther” comics author Christopher J. Priest put it on his blog, “We have simply never seen anything at all like this: a huge blockbuster featuring a mostly black cast with effects rivaling ‘Avatar’ and where every dime of that budget is up there on the screen.”
It has a black director in Ryan “Creed” Coogler; black screenwriters in Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and an almost entirely black cast. It is black front to back. It is black on both sides.
Does this make it exclusively a “black movie?” Of course not. “Black Panther” is simultaneously thus far the year’s best family movie to date and easily the most thematically sophisticated superhero movie we’ve ever encountered.
After a opening sequence set in 1992 Oakland that sets up a key plot point, we meet T’Challa (a magnetic Boseman), returning to the techno-paradise that is the African nation of Wakanda.
It is after the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” His father recently killed in a terrorist bombing, T’Challa is both the Black Panther, endowed by the mysterious heart-shaped herb with powers beyond those of normal humans, and newly-minted king of Wakanda, a gig sealed with ritual combat, dancing and some of most eye-poppingly glorious outfits you will see this year. (An Oscar for costume design seems a mortal lock.)
To the outside world, Wakanda is a sleepy developing nation. To those who live there, thanks to its massive supply of the super-metal vibranium, it is a Afrofuturist paradise and an allegory of what could have happened in Africa had the continent never been colonized and kept its natural resources.
Often, all-CGI cities can get exhausting to look at — as T’Challa and his ex-girlfriend (and Wakandan intelligence agent) Nakia (a luminous Lupita Nyong’o) walk around Wakanda, packed with flying cars and massive buildings next to food stalls and street vendors, one finds oneself wishing we learned just a little bit more about the day-to-day life there.
This isn’t the older, experienced T’Challa of the comics nor the supercool warrior of “Civil War” — this is a young king, Hamlet-esque, inexperienced and perhaps more intimidated by the job than he can really let on. It is one thing to get the job; it is another thing to rule. He misses his father. He gets thrown by seeing his ex-girlfriend. Sometimes challengers to the throne beat him senseless.
So he surrounds himself with canny advisers and aides — the aforementioned Nakia; the tribal elder Zuri (Forest Whitaker); his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya); his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright, whose bubbly energy steals every scene she’s in), who designs new tech for Wakanda and is essentially the Q to T’Challa’s James Bond; and the brilliant and brilliantly feirce Okoye (Danai Gurira, Michonne in “The Walking Dead”), leader of the Dora Milaje, the crown’s all-female elite guard. (As one colleague noted, “The roles for women here are better than in ‘Wonder Woman.’”)
T’Challa must keep the tribes of his nation united while fending off challenges on several fronts, starting with South African arms dealer/standard villain colonial symbol Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who would love to strip Wakanda of its vibranium. And then there’s token white guy/CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman rocking a dire American accent), a Wakandan ally who, well, just isn’t terribly interesting.
The Panther must also face Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan, clearly loving every second of his turn as a righteous adversary). An ex-American Special Forces assassin with a connection to the throne, Killmonger embodies the film’s key dilemma — should Wakanda remain isolationist, knowing full well that if its resources became known that the world would try to take them, or should it engage the world, perhaps by force, and fight for the liberation of the worldwide African diaspora? Killmonger wants the latter, and he wants it now, and he might not be wrong.
This is wonderfully heady stuff for a comic book movie, a genre that is too often mired in its own insular continuity and context. Smartly, Coogler’s “Black Panther” requires virtually zero prior knowledge of the MCU movies but fits neatly into the overall story. Boseman’s T’Challa glides through the part with grace and power, while Jordan’s argument is as old as slavery and colonialism. The fight scenes are dynamic and vivid. There is even some super comicbooky combat stuff at the end involving non-humans, just for some extra “hell yeah” fist-pump.
In “Black Panther,” Coogler and company have made a superhero picture that’s twice as good, twice as smart, twice as fun to look at as any before it. May they get twice the credit and twice the box office.
Congrats, guys hugging the poster — this is for you and anyone who likes to see something on screen they’ve never seen before. Wakanda forever.