Black Panther opens in Oakland, California in the year 1992. We see two men in a small room, planning an operation of some kind, surrounded by guns. A knock at the door, a man arrives, and one of them is killed. Outside, a kid plays basketball, unaware. He’ll later find his father murdered. That kid grows up to be Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger, as his name might suggest, is a man who takes great satisfaction in violence. His life’s ambition is to find and kill the people who murdered his father.
The man who killed Erik’s father was the Black Panther, aka the king of Wakanda. Wakanda is an African nation that appears poor to the world but is secretly hyper-advanced in technology thanks to a resource only they possess, Vibranium. Wakanda’s secrets have allowed the nation to remain free from centuries of colonial influence; it has never felt the ravages of imperialism, slavery, poverty, oppression. It has been self-governed through its long history, and though its tribes are often opposed politically, they have held together as a nation. Thanks to Vibranium, they have the technology–including weapons–to be a major force, if not the dominant military force, in the world. They have resources to help the oppressed, but they have refused to expose their secrets in favor of keeping their people safe.Thus the central conflict of director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is established: a man from Oakland, California, scarred by violence and trauma stands before the Superhero King, Back Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the son of the man who killed his father, and asks, for himself and for all the oppressed folks on earth, where was Wakanda when the people needed you?
Black Panther is the third film from director Ryan Coogler. All three star Coogler’s muse, Michael B. Jordan. The first was 2013’s Fruitvale Station, the true story of the last day of the life of Oscar Grant. Grant was 22-years-old when he was killed by a police officer at a transit station in Oakland. Fruitvale was a small film, made for less than $1 Million, but it was electric cinema. Fruitvale Station demanded attention, and earned it, garnering praise and accolades for both its director and star.
Coogler’s second film was the 2015 hit Creed, a passing of the Rocky-mantle from Sylvester Stallone to Coogler and Jordan. Michael B. Jordan hulked-up to play Adonis Creed, the bastard son of Apollo Creed who, at the film’s opening, is in a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. Likewise, Coogler got a hefty bulk in his budget, $35 Million this time, which paid off big for WB (the film earned $170 M at the box office), though Coogler’s success in Creed comes in his ability to keep things small. Creed was every bit the critical sensation that Fruitvale was, earning more praise for Jordan and Coogler, and an Oscar Nomination for Sylvester Stallone.
Which makes Black Panther only the third film in Coogler’s career. With a budget of $200 Million, a cast the size of a small nation, and all the resources Disney Corp has to offer, Coogler and Jordan have jumped from the mid-range Oscar movie to the very tip-top of the industry. It’s a big jump; one many directors have failed to manage.
No worries here. Black Panther is an astonishing success.Which is not to say that Black Panther is unique, or perfect. It is still a superhero movie, and a Marvel movie at that. As such, Black Panther follows the formula it must. It will rise and fall in the manners that you already expect. It will feign deaths, have prolonged car-chases and impervious people in punch-ups. There are dead parents, forlorn lovers, flashbacks and Avengers tie-ins. Because this is was it means to make a superhero movie for Disney.
As amazing, or depressing, as it is to say it, Black Panther is the eighteenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (even typing that is boring me). A cinematic project does not reach eighteen movies by discarding the formula. So yes, most of this is familiar. But it’s also true that Black Panther might be best film Marvel Studios has ever made. For every box that I could check for Black Panther, I could also point to ways that this movie is exceptional.
Black Panther is exceptional in its writing, a comment rarely made about any MCU film. Coogler directed from a screenplay he wrote with Joe Robert Cole, and the manner in which they weave existant culture–the refugee crisis is a central political issue–with mythological storytelling provides an undercurrent that girds the emotional core of the film while the wiz-bang action sequences unfold. The scope of a movie like Black Panther is hard to conceive of; that Coogler keeps the focus tight and the emotions strong testifies to the attention on writing.
Black Panther is exceptional in its portrait of an African culture fully intact. The film is set mostly in Wakanda (with a brief excursion to Busan, South Korea), and Coogler’s direction creates a world alive with history, traditions, tribes, and ceremonies that have never been lost to colonialism. Wakanda is glorious to behold. If the modern superhero movie is America’s most potent cultural/mythological playground (and it is), then Black Panther is the first entry that is, wholly, black.
Black Panther is a film comprised of artists creating, from scratch, a textured African culture. Coogler and his cinematographer Rachel Morrison create a world that never had to throw off Europe, never succumbed to western capitalism or patriarchy. Women are present, indeed, fronted, at every moment of Black Panther: a scientist, a spy, a warrior bodyguard. Wakanda’s most fearsome warriors are a group of bald, badass women, led by Danai Gurira’s Okoye. It is as though the concept of gender inequality simply never arrived in Wakanda, and it’s really fun to watch. Plus, there’s no denying the pleasure of seeing these women pound the shit out of a group of white nameless goons.
But the most exceptional, and exciting, element of Black Panther is central creative relationship. Michael B. Jordan is the villain of this picture, but Coogler also understands that without him, the film has no heart. Erik Killmonger in Black Panther is a bad man, but he’s not an evil one; he wants to use the power of Wakanda to enable the oppressed to free themselves. His opposite, the Black Panther, wants to protect his people, even as he understands the demand to help the needy around the world. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the king’s ex-girlfriend and spy, argues a case to the king that is similar to Killmonger’s: Wakanda should use its resources to help those in need. Both men are motivated by a similar goal, and both are corrupted from that goal for personal reasons. Still, you cannot corrupt something that wasn’t, at one point, good.
I thought a lot about good, evil, and corruption while watching Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Thinking of that boy, from the opening moments, playing basketball as his father is killed. At one point, Killmonger speaks a line about being “a kid from Oakland” who runs around “believing in fairytales,” and I find it hard to believe that Ryan Coogler didn’t have Oscar Grant in mind when he wrote such an exceptional line for an actor as exceptional as Michael B. Jordan to spit into the face of America’s most prominent fairytale: a superhero.–Christopher Zumski Finke