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High octane anti-colonialism: a review of “Black Panther” (2018)

      The first thing I’ll say about Coogler’s “Black Panther” is that watching it causes the sequel to make a great deal more sense to me. My relationship to Marvel films is complicated because I’ve seen a few, and oftentimes removed from the context of the increasingly tangled corporate web that the studio has been spinning. “Black Panther” makes an especially strong case for Marvel to focus on its isolated stories far more, placing chips on the characters in front of them now rather than looking too far ahead into what role they might play in the cosmic comic-book chess-game.  

           The African kingdom of Wakanda, composed of five tribes, has hidden itself from the outside world to protect its most precious resource: Vibranium, a versatile and powerful metal. King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne when his father is killed in a terrorist attack and assumes the role of the eponymous hero black panther. Despite Wakanda’s best efforts to remain in the shadows, forces of evil still attempt to rob it of its precious Vibranium. When Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B Jordan) set out to steal and sell it, T’Challa and allies Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) must stop them.

           Wakanda is a vision not only of an Africa  removed from colonialism, but one that became that way in reaction to the empires swallowing the continent around it. With its natural resources unexploited, its technology exceeds that seen anywhere else in the world; with its cultural heritage protected, the kingdom maintains a strong connection to its history. This combination of undiluted progress and tradition creates a major superpower under everyone else’s noses.  While Wakanda can isolate itself, exponentially heightening this cultural feedback loop, the rest of the world’s cruelty remains unchanged, both in regards to colonial exploitation and oppression.  

           This is where “Black Panther[’s]” strongest element comes into play: its antagonist. Killmonger, a young Black soldier, helps Klaue’s mission to plunder Wakanda — but for an entirely different reason than greed. Killmonger believes that Vibranium-based weapons could cure worldwide Black oppression, using their unstoppable power to tear down the systems and the people that perpetuate it. Throw in personal stakes and you’ve got yourself a stand-out action-film antagonist. Killmonger doesn’t indulge in fru-fru philosophy and instead sticks to the cold hard facts: Millions of people have been killed, stolen from and culturally erased for thousands of years, and he’s tired of it. His Machiavellian methods and understandable motives likewise work hand-in-hand to create the most nuanced villain I’ve seen in a comic-book movie. He is well-paired with T’Challa, who fights for a better solution but hasn’t borne witness to such oppression in the same way.

           Our other characters are not quite as complex but nonetheless enjoyable to watch. T’Challa blames himself for his father’s death and experiences great insecurity in attempting to assume the role of king before he thought he would. The rest of the cast isn’t quite as deeply written, but the characters still pop. Okoye, in particular, in large part because of Gurira’s performance, serves as fantastic comedic relief: many of her jokes land because she’s not intending to be funny at all and Gurira plays her perfectly straight. Martin Freeman is also here as Agent Everett Ross, a rather nebbish white CIA operative. It’s a little odd that he has such prominent screentime in what is largely a showcase of Black talent, but it’s fun to watch him squirm as he struggles to navigate unfamiliar surroundings. Winston Duke’s M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari Tribe, by contrast, was a character I wanted more of. His bursting charisma was fantastic, which is likely why he went on to have more time behind the camera in the sequel. T’Challa may have been Boseman’s most prominent role, but the movie becomes M’Baku’s for those brief moments when Duke is on screen.

           The action in “Black Panther” provides a great deal of punch, but not in the places you might expect it to. As is the case in many other Marvel films, you’ve got a large-scale final battle climax, but it’s in the simple ritual combat sections in which “Black Panther” is at its best in this regard. There are several points at which T’Challa’s crown is challenged and the title of king is decided in a fight. The action is purest when it’s at its most visceral. The car chase in Busan is another highlight — if largely for the music alone, which infuses the scene with electrifying energy. A flaw, shared by its successor, is that the film seems unaware of the tragedy of its conflict at times: as Killmonger inevitably turns Wakandans against each other, the lingering thought that good people are dying never escapes the brain. That usual Marvel firecracker flair drowns out the somber nature of what’s unfolding here, and it’s still bothersome that it’s never satisfyingly addressed, at least by my vantage.

           There is a great deal of specificity to “Black Panther” which sets it apart from other superhero films I’ve seen. Though not all of our characters are terribly deep, each is given small touches and performance nuances which grant them individual, memorable life. The moral turpitude of its anti-colonial conflict, however, is what pumps the blood, and it’s that political element which elevates the film beyond simplistic crowd-pleasing entertainment. True, the action is incredibly fun and the writing is snappy, as one should expect from any half-way decent action film, but I find its thematic struggle its most magnetic element. “Wakanda Forever” likewise comments on colonialism, but I think Killmonger wears it better. Superhero films tend to take themselves very seriously, but “Black Panther” is a rare gem in which its themes support such cinematic pomp and circumstance: you enter the theater chomping at the bit for action and leave thinking.

Rating: 4/5

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