“You are a good man with a good heart. But it is hard for a good man to be king.”
These are the deceased T’Chaka’s final words to his son T’Challa before the latter is crowned king of Wakanda, an African nation that poses as a third world country, when in reality it is one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, thanks to the natural resource of vibranium. Throughout the Black Panther, T’Challa has a hard time accepting the contradiction of this statement: there is a disconnect between the man he is and the king he must be. As a whole, the film questions (and answers) its own permutation of T’Chaka’s proclamation: can a good superhero film have heart and explore themes of race, power and privilege, or will its genre conventions — namely CGI spectacle and quippy one-liners — reduce it to simply being blockbuster entertainment?
Black Panther shows that the two can be harmonious; Ryan Coogler’s film is at once a celebration of blackness, a sobering analysis of the responsibilities and obligations that people of privilege and power have and a dazzling superhero film in its own right. The philosophical struggle manifests itself through the titular T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the villainous Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). T’Challa views Wakanda as an edenic paradise; a place where black creativity and expression can roam free without the fear of white or western contamination, and one that should remain isolated. Killmonger seeks to turn Wakanda into an empire and supply the nation’s powerful weapons to oppressed black people all around the world so that they may kill their oppressors. Both actors play their characters with such conviction, it is hard to determine who is in the right.
Yet while Black Panther explores these themes, it is a superhero film after all, and while the action sequences are few and far between (it may be the film’s only foible, which speaks to its excellence), Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison craft some sequences and shots that you’ll long remember after the credits roll. In comparison to his past films Fruitvale Station and Creed, Coogler is given a much bigger toolbox when it comes to orchestrating elaborate set pieces. He gives the intimate fight scenes, like the one between M’Baku and T’Challa, a greater sense of scale, while making the film’s grandiose set pieces, like that of the finale, more personal. Coogler engages all the senses, incorporating tracks from the film’s official album as a backdrop for the fight sequences. In particular, as T’Challa and Shuri race through the streets of Busan, “Opps” by Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok plays in the background, and the trio’s ferocious verses are interwoven nicely between the car explosions.
As dynamic as the action is, the characters are the heart of the film, and black women get to shine brightly in Black Panther. It is exciting to see Coogler flip the script on the traditional tropes of gadgeteer, love interest, and bodyguard as an extension of that celebration. All of Wakanda’s mechanical splendor is due to Letitia Wright’s Shuri, but rather than being stuck behind a desk, she gets in on the action herself, aiding her brother against Ulysses Klaue’s forces. Wright brings such an excitement and freshness to her role, and you can tell Coogler’s own elation lives vicariously through her as she dreams up of new technological weapons: what’s better than a bulletproof catsuit? How about one that can emit kinetic energy blasts?
Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, while T’Challa’s love interest, is no damsel in distress; she’s fiercely independent and more than able to hold her own in a fight. Likewise, Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, is not just a submissive foot soldier but T’Challa’s rival when it comes to combat, and equal parts witty and deadly. She provides some of the film’s standout fight sequences. Andy Serkis’s Ulysses Klaue, a black market arms dealer, is delightfully histrionic and his single-minded ambitions clash nicely alongside Killmonger’s more personal vendetta.
After one of T’Challa’s first missions, Shuri offers him an updated gadget, and he declines the modifications, stating that the current one works just fine. To this, Shuri berates her older brother, stating, “just because something works, does not mean it can’t be improved.” How fittingly meta for a film like Black Panther, a superhero movie that improves on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s already winning slate. Coogler’s film is art that is not political in its agenda, but honest in its inquisition: it speaks powerfully to human suffering and tackles its heady themes with poise and grace. In a time where the rhetoric of wall-breaking is prevalent, Black Panther reminds us to build bridges and to seek unity, not uniformity. How’s that for typical superhero fanfare?
Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]