- Black Panther (2018) movie review: Featuring a fantastic Michael B. Jordan as its top villain, Ryan Coogler’s groundbreaking superhero flick is more than mere big-budget “entertainment.”
- Black Panther won three Academy Awards: Best Original Score (Ludwig Göransson), Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter), and Production Design (Hannah Beachler & Jay Hart). It was nominated in four other categories, including Best Picture.
Black Panther movie review: First big-budget black superhero release provides more than fast-paced action & eye-popping visual effects
Black Panther, the first studio-produced motion picture to feature a black superhero and a predominantly black cast, is a remarkably good movie – exceptional beyond its $200 million budget “entertainment value.”
Included in the price tag are computer-generated bells and whistles – ranging from vistas of the fictional African land of Wakanda to the Black Panther’s sleek, tech-enhanced, midnight-black superhero suit – and plenty of Wow, Smash, and Bang!.
To that end, Black Panther is as well produced a Marvel movie crap-fest as any. But all that CGI-poo is not why this is a, at times, fantastic superhero flick.
Bucking the trend
That’s high praise from this critic, who has been experiencing a diminishing ratio of enjoyment to time spent in the theater when it comes to most recent superhero fare.
I was disappointed (to say the least) by Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League. Deadpool was a hit, but I found it a crude, loutish bore, while Suicide Squad made me want to kill myself.
As for the Thor movies – which many enjoy, and which do have a certain Shakespearean quality – they have grown increasingly tiresome.
Admittedly, Wonder Woman, Logan, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy were all good. These movies, like Black Panther, exude a certain humor and charm, along with a measure of gravitas to match their requisite CGI crap.
In any case, Black Panther does not disappoint even a fair-weather fanboy like myself. Its greatest achievement is its ability to be a movie in deep contemplation of the tribulations of black people while not being a movie against white people. In fact, it manages to render one white person a heroic, albeit comic, figure.
That’s Martin Freeman, a good sport who reprises his Captain America: Civil War role as CIA operative Ross. Freeman’s “comic hero” reps white folks in much the same way that black sidekicks and foils have provided comic relief for the white heroes in a number of action and superhero films (e.g., Anthony Mackie in Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War; Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout).
Oakland vs. Wakanda
Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from a screenplay by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), and starring Chadwick Boseman in the title role, Black Panther is a movie with wide appeal and deliberate intentions, as it’s moored in contemporary issues wrapped in imaginary circumstances.
Some of these issues were relevant even when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby conceived the hero back in 1966. That same year, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, challenging anti-black police brutality in Oakland, California.
And Oakland in 1997 is where and when Black Panther opens. Aside from being the Black Panther Party birthplace, Oakland is the city from where Ryan Coogler hails, one that has suffered more than its share of poverty, crime, and other adversities over the years.
As it happens, late 20th-century Oakland was the polar opposite of the mystical nation of Wakanda, a high-tech land of plenty with an abundance of both black people and the fictional metal vibranium, source of the nation’s advanced technology and wealth.
Vibranium is also a source of power that Wakanda has chosen not to share with the rest of the world. That includes other black people – children of Africa, one might say – oppressed and left behind because of the choices of the Wakanda kings.
‘Mostly irrelevant’ white people
In this narrative, the Wakanda kings are to blame for the miseries of the descendants of Africa – miseries that continue to this day. Also in this scenario, white people are mostly irrelevant.
Such an approach is refreshing, although one of the key bad guys in Black Panther – Klaue, a carry-over from Avengers: Age of Ultron (another whinny bore of a movie) – is a white man. As portrayed by Andy Serkis, the murderous mercenary comes across as a raving loon; yet there’s something else that is refreshing: Klaue is not particularly racist.
At the other end, Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of the Wakanda ruler T’Challa a.k.a. the Black Panther is suave and stately. His accent, ever so faintly Kenyan yet not Kenyan, is measured to register without ever overwhelming a clean, subtle performance. He’s never loud. He’s never angry. He’s guilty over having been unable to save his father (in Captain America: Civil War), but he’s not vengeful.
Black Panther is also, perhaps, a bit naive about what it means to be king, as he continues to struggle with the disturbing legacy of his forefathers. Mostly, he’s worried about his people – black people.
Discordantly meek Angela Bassett
The theft of enough vibranium to wreak havoc in the world ostensibly drives the action in Black Panther. T’Challa and his royal entourage must prevent the ore and the location of Wakanda from becoming known. To this end, Coogler’s film is ordinary in its superhero-movie pursuits.
There are a half-dozen big set-piece battle sequences wherein all the laws of physics are broken in the service of “cool stuff.” T’Challa’s Praetorian Guard – Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) as General Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) as the accomplished spy and warrior Nakia – lead most of the battles and do a lot of the cool stuff.
These are some serious ass-kicking women who find themselves saving their king’s ass on more than a few occasions. (In my personal experience as a black man, this is an accurate representation of the relationship of most black women to most black men.)
That said, Angela Bassett plays the Black Panther’s mom with an overly meek demeanor for a Queen Mother. Looking like Toni Morrison with a thick shock of white braids, Bassett has no agency. She’s the only gal in the movie that doesn’t break something (or somebody) on purpose. I didn’t care for that.
Socially conscious superhero flick
As noted, beyond the ordinary pursuits of a Marvel comic book movie adaptation, Black Panther has its present-day preoccupations as well.
It’s concerned with the lives of boys raised without fathers and what that manifests. It’s concerned with our personal responsibility to set ourselves free from the circumstances that oppress us, no matter our race or creed.
It questions what we should be prepared to do to affect our own circumstances. Nat Turner – the slave turned preacher, turned freedom fighter, turned martyr – posed these questions, too.
Black Panther is also concerned with our responsibility to our sisters and brothers when they are being subjugated and we have the wherewithal to free them. The firebrand abolitionist preacher and American terrorist John Brown felt that responsibility, too.
Film stealer Michael B. Jordan
To that end, we have the extraordinary film-stealing performance of Michael B. Jordan (the star of Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Creed) as Erik Killmonger.
One imagines the character’s name gives away his nature. Yet it does not speak to his raison d’être: A righteous indignation of Nat Turner and John Brown proportions that, like the indignation of those complex historical figures, is not exactly wrong.
Hellbent on vengeance, Killmonger has good reason to feel that way. While we cannot condone his actions, we can empathize with him – at times I actually rooted for him – largely thanks to Michael B. Jordan.
Ultimately, Killmonger embodies every young black man – perhaps every person – who has ever been filled with an abiding hatred of both the system that wrongly stole their life away and all those who stood by and did nothing while that was happening.
At this time next year – awards season – I’m going to remember Michael B. Jordan’s outstanding Black Panther performance. And you should, too.
Black Panther (2018)
Director: Ryan Coogler.
Scr.: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole.
Based on characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman. Michael B. Jordan. Lupita Nyong’o. Danai Gurira. Martin Freeman. Andy Serkis. Angela Bassett. Forest Whitaker. Daniel Kaluuya.
Cameo: Stan Lee.
“Black Panther Movie (2018) Review” endnotes
Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman Black Panther movie images: Marvel Studios | Walt Disney Studios.
“Black Panther Movie (2018) Review: Scene-Stealer Michael B. Jordan” last updated in September 2021.