RECAP: Black Panther
Black Panther (2018): Ryan Coogler
If it’s a month ending in -ary or -ember, or it’s a short-named month, it must be a month for a Marvel release. Don’t forget August, either.
Point is, no month is safe from a Marvel release. Black Panther was the first to come out in February, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that February is also Black History Month.
An undeniable sensation, Ryan Coogler’s third (!) movie outearned the following movies, based on ticket price inflation: Back to the Future, The Lord of the Rings, Aladdin, Toy Story 3, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Less than a week after the death of his father the king, T’Challa returns to his home of Wakanda to assume his place on the throne, until challengers throw him off it.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), saddened by his father’s murder, knows that a trial approaches. Black Panther opens in the present day with Black Panther about to do a raid in Nigeria. He stops a convoy of human traffickers, all to tell his ex-girlfirend that his papa is dead and he’ll be crowned king in a few days.
Wakanda has some interesting rituals of kingship. The next in line must face challengers of royal blood in combat to the death, or until one party yields. Such trials occur twice in Black Panther, and each time T’Challa does not look the part of a warrior king, nor is he ready to be without his father.
Maybe it’s a good thing for Wakanda, then, that the strongest is not always the ruler. T’Challa has strength in other ways. He has the strength to change his mind.
T’Challa knows that the rest of the world is catching up to Wakanda’s millennia of technological superiority. He’s seen what Iron Man’s Stark Industries can do. There’s a guy out there throwing a vibranium shield. Gods and gamma-rayed fighters are holding back tides of aliens from other dimensions.
In other words, it’s not the best time to go it alone, so to speak. Wakanda needs to open up. But that’s not T’Challa’s position for most of the film. It belongs to his rival, the villain and T’Challa’s cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
It’s easy to say the Black Panther is fearless, because he steps in front of bullets and fights with calm. You would too if you wore a suit made of an barely known, indestructible material. You’d be as scared of bullets as you are of paper balls being thrown at you.
T’Challa can face his nature and the nature of leadership and not be afraid to admit he’s wrong. Black Panther is the lone Marvel Cinematic Universe hero who is also a head of state. Being one or the other is a challenge enough; T’Challa juggles both.
After T’Challa first wins the throne, he learns of the whereabouts of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the only outsider to have survived Wakanda, an arms dealer who stole a quarter-ton of vibranium, and literally a one-armed man. Also, he killed a lot of folks in Wakanda and has been their most wanted man for 30 years.
T’Challa pledges to bring Klaue to justice, but he fails. His opponent Killmonger does the job instead. This failure to arrest the guy who stole their vibranium convinces one of Wakanda’s five tribes to turn from T’Challa and support the outsider instead.
Killmonger wants to send Wakanda tech to the outside world (for different reasons discussed later), a diplomatic move that would be the first in the kingdom’s history. I mean literally Wakanda’s first diplomatic move; Wakanda is an invisible kingdom that the outside world knows nothing (truthful) about.
T’Challa doesn’t support the idea at first, but later he does. This change of heart is impressive because he recognizes that it came (mostly) from a man T’Challa calls “a monster.” It also helps that his ex-girlfriend supports the idea, but it’s Killmonger that pushes him over the edge.
What else about everyone’s favorite reclusive king? He’s hot for Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and when he sees her he freezes every time. The ladies in his life know it, though he does not. T’Challa’s fight skills are up to par. And his humanity is unquestioned.
Midway through Black Panther, a rescue attempt ends with CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) being shot. Only a miracle can save him, or a day in a Wakandan medical clinic. T’Challa and others debate bringing the spy to Wakanda. Some oppose it. Could there be a worse person to bring into a secret kingdom than a spy for the world’s largest nation? Still, T’Challa cannot let Ross die; he is too principled.
A US creation, MIT graduate, and accomplished soldier, Erik Killmonger was born and raised in Oakland, California. It was a bad upbringing for him, and it affected his worldview.
Yeah, most people are affected by their upbringing, but most people don’t have a birthright to rule the most advanced state on Earth, nor the skills to kill hundreds of people to do it. Would you believe that a guy calling himself Killmonger does?
The Malcolm X to T’Challa’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Killmonger steals vibranium and sets loose Klaue to gain entrance into Wakanda, a kingdom denied him since birth. He challenges T’Challa to the throne and beats him, at least temporarily, and immediately begins enacting his plan of global black revolution.
How much of Killmonger’s issues stem from his upbringing? He saw his father’s dead body, left there by the man’s brother and King of Wakanda. That’ll mess you up bigly.
Michael B. Jordan nearly steals the movie. He steals a mask from the “Museum of Great Britain” because he was “feelin’ it.” It DOES look good on him.
What about his motivations? Killmonger believes that the oppressed will only be saved through violent revolution. This is exactly the thoughts of rebellious groups in North America in 1775 and 1861. Those rebellions were fine, even noble to many, but some folks have scruples against a black revolution. Why, it’s almost as if those on top want to stay there and don’t want the boat rocked.
Killmonger might be a murderous asshole eager to burn it all down, but he convinces T’Challa to adhere to his ideas. That’s the power of a great villain.
T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira) travel to Busan, South Korea, where they’ve anticipated a deal between Klaue and an unknown American to take place inside a casino.
The three dapper Wakandans enter the casino and start casing the joint, using their nearly invisible, unlimited range communicators tucked behind their ears. Quickly they spot the one, two, three–uh oh–four five six Americans. Lots of muscle to do this deal. It’s a problem. T’Challa doesn’t want to make scene. He’s the King of Wakanda, after all, and diplomacy is always in his mind.
Okoye can’t wait to tear off her wig, but she and the other two look swell. T’Challa spots CIA agent Everett Ross. Ross knows a thing or two about Marvel-grade heroes, and that T’Challa isn’t in Busan by coincidence. T’Challa figures Ross to be the mysterious vibranium buyer. Both men are correct.
Klaue rolls up five cars deep. He brings plenty of muscle to back him up. He meets Ross and pulls out the promised vibranium from his front zipper. It’s in a paper bag marked “fragile.” Why there? Klaue wanted to save money on a fancy briefcase.
The weapons dealer wants diamonds, and here comes a fancy briefcase full of them. Suddenly, the fighting starts. Okoye kicks things off by drawing her weapon of choice–a weighty spear that thunders when it hits the ground. Imagine what it’s about to do to some human faces. She rips off her wig and throws it at a henchman.
Klaue, not a man of mercy, draws a handgun and fires three shots point blank at Ross, who blocks the bullets with his fancy briefcase. T’Challa, not yet ready to don his hero suit, blocks the punches of two men by taking a knee. Nakia fights men with her shoe. A stunning long take follows the three Wakandans as they fight across two levels of the casino.
Okoye does the most damage, twirling her spear around her back and whipping the bottom into faces. Those guys won’t get up. She slides down the stairs with her red dress waving behind. T’Challa leaps from the floor to the upstairs balcony in a single leap. He is, after all, imbued with the power of the black panther. It ain’t just a suit.
“Murderer!” he shouts at Klaue. The arms dealer is out of bullets, but not of weapons. His left arm suddenly cracks in half. An arm-length cannon emerges, shimmering blue, and it fires a blast at T’Challa, who holds a wood box that saves his life, though he crashes to the ground floor. Klaue is giddy. “I made it rain,” he says to an underling.
The fight goes outside. Klaue and his five cars split up through the city. Nakia and Okoye follow in one car, while T’Challa, donning the Black Panther suit, rides in another. Well, not so much in as on, because his sister is driving.
Black Panther displays the most advanced tech on Earth, including everything at Stark Industries. Shuri, speaking to her brother from her lab in Wakanda, steps into a vibranium-formed facsimile of a Lexus coupe and drives through virtual-reality Busan streets. Black Panther perches on the car’s roof. Shuri has to ask what side of the road they drive on, she’s so green and fearless.
Nakia drives as a goon shoots at her car from the back of his. “Guns,” Okoye scoffs, “so primitive.” She leans out the passenger window and takes aim. She throws her spear at near-sonic speed through the enemy car. The spear plunges into the road, creating an indestructible barrier. The car immediately impales itself on the spear.
Black Panther trails the other group of cars. To barge through traffic he grabs the side of the car and drags his claws in the road, lifting the car to make a high speed, tight turn. He moves onto a long bridge, where the new suit comes in handy.
Black Panther’s suit upgrade utilizes kinetic energy capture and transfer. Any force applied to the suit can be redirected at T’Challa’s will. Purple lines on the suit indicate the power stored. How about a hundred rounds of automatic rifle fire? Klaue’s people do just that, but the bullets do not phase Black Panther, whose car drives around the enemy vehicle and in front.
In the move of the movie, Black Panther leaps backward onto the car hood and discharges all that pent up energy. A blast crushes and flips the car. Black Panther leaps up, does a back flip, and lands on the hood of the Lexus. Shuri laughs. It’s fun for her.
Now it’s Klaue’s turn. “Let’s have some fun,” he says, as if he’s not already having fun. It’s his turn to lean out the side window and shoot at cars. He tries his arm cannon again as Black Panther’s car rounds a corner. The sonic blast smashes the car, sending Black Panther flying toward a building, which he runs up and leaps from to land on Klaue’s car, which he grasps and relieves of one of its tires using his claws.
Nakia and Okoye lose their car by similar means. A terrific shot from above captures Okoye flying from her vehicle, grabbing her spear, and using it to pierce a car hood and use it as a surfboard to slide safely to a stop. Nakia, still safely strapped in the drivers seat (that is removed from the car), slides to a stop beside her. Ross pulls up and gives them a ride.
Black Panther brings Klaue’s car to a stop and drags out the only white person to ever leave Wakanda alive. Black Panther would greatly enjoy killing the arms dealer, but his subordinates yell at him to stop. Dozens of people are gathered around filming the event. Ross takes Klaue for interrogation.
Okoye: Bald by choice, Okoye leads the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan Pratorian Guard. She carries a spear that she swings around like a baton and strikes the ground with a massive thud. She has the toughest choice in Black Panther, after Killmonger wins the throne. Nakia flees the main city, but Okoye does not. “My heart goes with you,” she basically says, but her duty is to protect the king, despite her fear of him.
Nakia: One of two Oscar winners in Black Panther, Nyong’o plays the new breed of Wakandan elite. A spy, Nakia wants her kingdom to share its wealth and technology. She spends most of her adult life outside Wakanda, saving slaves and speaking Korean. She also used to date T’Challa, and that makes their working together a little awkward. Props to Nakia for being chill about working with her still-amorous ex, who happens to be her boss and king of. How one can stave that off I do not know.
Shuri: The Q to Black Panther’s James Bond, T’Challa’s sister has the best time. She teases her brother’s choice of footwear. She convinces him to test her newly designed suit, which absorbs energy and redirects it, sending her brother the king into a table. She has the best line when she calls Ross a “colonizer.” To Shuri, dangerous missions are part of life’s party.
Agent Everett Ross deserves mention, I guess, for shooting down aircraft. Marvel made an excellent choice in (or lucked into) having the whitest person imaginable be the outside world’s conduit into Wakanda. That’s called being a foil.
I imagine the actors had plenty of fun making Black Panther, but no character has fun in the movie like Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. An arms dealer from South Africa, Klaue first appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron with a batch of vibranium he’d stolen from Wakanda. That theft was thirty years ago, and he’s eluded the Wakandans ever since.
Now seemingly out of the world’s strongest material, Klaue works with Killmonger to get some more, specifically in the form of an 8th century battle axe found in Benin and housed in the Museum of Great Britain.
Klaue takes the vibranium to South Korea, where he plans to sell it to the CIA. Does he know it’s the CIA? He wouldn’t care. He sells to the highest bidder.
Klaue appears in the museum posing as a paramedic. He kills two guards quickly, then convinces the final guard to run away and not tell anybody, only to shoot him in the back. Makes them look like amateurs to have the bodies more spread out.
Klaue holds the hunk of heavy metal in his underwear, wrapped in a brown paper bag. That’s the funniest place for contraband I’ve ever seen in a movie. Everything is funny to this guy. His arm is missing, replaced with a sonic cannon. That’d make me enjoy life a bit more (once I got over the missing an arm thing).
Having fun does not stop someone from acting ruthlessly. Klaue enjoys blasting away at Black Panther, and he doesn’t sweat sitting in a cell in the CIA’s custody. But then, if Martin Freeman was your captor, would you feel scared?
Just when I was enjoying Klaue, Killmonger goes and kills him, dragging his body to Wakanda’s border. The only outsider to escape Wakanda alive is dead. The circle is closed.
Though they turn to T’Challa’s side in the end, the Jabari tribe mostly antagonize whoever sits on Wakanda’s throne. The most Wakandan of Wakanda’s tribes, the Jabari rejected the black panther myth millennia ago a retreated into the snowy mountains where they live alone.
They show up twice in Black Panther during a scene’s apotheosis, displaying a terrific skill in narrative timing. T’Challa’s family journeys to their mountain home to ask for their help in defeating Killmonger. Their leader threatens to feed Agent Ross to his children, and then jokes that they are vegetarians.
These warriors appear much stronger than the soft, pitiful Wakandans living in the plains. They fight like warriors as well, and enjoy grunting at their opponents.
T’Challa is next in line to lead Wakanda, but to win the throne he’ll have to win a fight. Wakandan elite gather in a small pool amongst a Victoria-Falls-like waterfall in their kingdom, where an ancient ritual of combat crowns the next king of Wakanda.
T’Challa stands shirtless as a shaman feeds him a drink that strips away the power of the black panther, making for a fair fight. Then, the shaman calls on each of the four tribes (five if the Jabari choose to be present) if they will send a challenger.
The four mainstream tribes turn down the offer. It will be a happy day for all. BUT WAIT. A deep chanting emerges from a cave. The insular mountain dwellers, the Jabari, have arrived. Their tribe leader, M’Baku (Winston Duke), has words. The shaman asks what he’s doing there. “It’s challenge day,” M’Baku answers nonchalantly.
T’Challa and M’Baku stand in the murky, ankle-deep pool overlooking a steep drop. It’s a small arena, and it’s about to get smaller. A half-dozen members of Okoye’s forces and Jabari guards surround the competitors, weapons en guard.
The fighters take probing swipes at each other. T’Challa prefers a slide kick that splashes water at his opponent, but that appears to do nothing. M’Baku has about 50 pounds on T’Challa, and he uses that to gain a swift advantage. Both men wear ritual masks, but it’s not long before T’Challa loses his. M’Baku bashes his opponent’s unprotected face with his mask, giving the prince a bloody nose and a concussion.
T’Challa regains energy and forces M’Baku into a roll. Meanwhile, the dozen guards have inched closer in a semicircle, narrowing the fighting field. M’Baku gains a spear and stabs T’Challa in the chest below his shoulder. The crowd chants his name. They have not given up on their would-be king.
T’Challa removes the spearpoint and summons the energy for a final attack. It’s enough to grapple M’Baku into a choke hold at the edge of the precipice. Either or both men could die at that moment. “Yield,” T’Challa shouts. “You have fought with honor.” It’s yield or die, and M’Baku seriously considers the latter. “Your people need you,” T’Challa says. M’Baku agrees and taps out.
Now fast forward to another, more dramatic fight. Killmonger arrives in Wakanda after a life living in the worst place in the world–the United States of America. Specifically Oakland, California, a less-than-great place to come up, it seems. Killmonger has royal blood, and has a right to challenge for the throne. He does.
This fight will be less populated, and all parties expect it will end in death. Killmonger strips his shirt to reveal hundreds of raised dots on his skin. Each one for a kill. He killed in America, in Afghanistan, Iraq. “All this death,” he says, “so I could kill you.” So yeah, you can forget about yielding.
T’Challa fights with sword and shield. It’s a sword and a broken spear for Killmonger. These two trade blows at the start, looking for a weakness. T’Challa draws first blood by cutting Killmonger’s face. The bad guy returns the blow by slicing the inside of T’Challa’s leg, a shot that probably could have been a kill shot. Pretty soon he’s stabbed again, this time in the gut.
“Is this your king?” Killmonger taunts. He’s a rude dude. Standing over a prone T’Challa, Killmonger raises his weapon for the death blow. BUT WAIT, a spear intercepts the blow. It’s Zuri, longtime royal aide, standing up for his king, though against protocol. Killmonger is angry. Angrier than usual. He kills Zuri. T’Challa cries for his uncle and scrambles toward him. Killmonger delivers a knee to his face, lifts the unconscious body, and throws it over the waterfall. All hail the new king.
You didn’t think T’Challa was dead, did you? “I never yielded, and as you can see, I am not dead.” Black Panther arrives in his suit to resume the challenge for Wakandan rule.
He announces his presence by leaping onto a jet and blowing it up with the power of his suit and claws. That’s a baller move. Killmonger, who oversees the distribution of Wakandan weapons to the outside world, by his order as king, smiles at his adversary. “All that challenge shit is over,” he says. He’s the king now. I think T’Challa will have words about that.
Okoye, galvanized upon seeing the former king, leads her soldiers to attack Killmonger, who, of course, wears a panther suit of his own, decked in gold. Four spear-wielding guards fight Killmonger.
Meanwhile, W’Kabi leads his tribe to charge T’Challa, who runs at them up an open field. The Border Tribe stops and holds up cloaks, which form a laser shield. That’s nothing for Black Panther, who leaps over the shield line much as he leapt over the car on the bridge in Busan. An energy blast from his suit knocks them back.
Black Panther finds his friend and kicks him into a rock. W’Kabi climbs a rock and blows through a horn. Yes, YES, it’s WAR RHINOS.
Three vibranium-armored rhinoceroses burst through the wreckage of the downed jet and charge, knocking everyone over. Black Panther grabs one by the horns and drags it down, but what chance do the less-armored Dora Milaje have?
Meanwhile, Agent Ross has to pilot a jet to take down the weapons-carrying craft Killmonger has sent to leave Wakanda. He’s pretty good at it, considering he’s never flown such a craft in such a manner, and was shot yesterday. He sits in the virtual cockpit despite the punishing gunfire striking a glass wall a few yards in front of him.
Shuri and Nakia, after sneaking through the lab, find cool weapons and go topside to fight Killmonger. The villain has sliced the throat of a top Dora Milaje officer. The ladies attack with sonic fists and vibranium Arobies (flat throwing discs with holes in their centers).
They give valiant efforts, but Killmonger is too skilled, slashing Nakia’s leg, and soon he’s about to kill Shuri. Black Panther spots this, and he sprints into Killmonger, sending both falling into the deep hole where the vibranium is mined. They fall and punch and fall and punch for a long time, clawing at walls until they land, luckily, on a maglev train platform. Black Panther orders his sister to turn on the trains to activate the sonic dampening.
A train speeds through, separating the fighters. They glare at each other like Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, taunting each other. Killmonger explains that he will use his enemies’ tactics against them. He will become the colonizer. “You have become them,” T’Challa says. He’s not wrong, but does Killmonger care?
On the surface, the Dora Milaje are surrounded by the border guards, who enclose on them and are about to crush them. From behind comes the barking sound of the Jabari tribe, who have decided to join the fight. Their clubs easily defeat the border guards.
Those war rhinos are still out there. Okoye knows how to stop them. As W’Kabi charges toward her, she stands in front and glares at the rhino. It slows, stops, and licks her face. Okoye convinces W’Kabi to drop his sword. They know who should be king. By the way, how’s that going?
The speeding train passes and the hero and villain resume fighting. They do this a couple times, until Black Panther pulls a sick move. Using a sword point, Black Panther throws the sword into the air, rolls over Killmonger, and stabs him in the chest moments before the vibranium regains effect, closing the metal around the blade. “Hell of a move,” Killmonger says.
T’Challa, a kind king, doesn’t let Killmonger die. He drags his opponent to the edge of the mine, to show him that Wakanda sunset his father raved about. The once and present king mentions that Wakandan medicine could save Killmonger. No, the bad guy says, he will be buried at sea, with ancestors who knew that death was better than bondage. Damn, that’s commitment. He killmongered himself.
After all this, T’Challa takes care of two things. He makes out with Nakia, and he buys some buildings in Oakland that will become Wakanda’s first outreach facilities.
I mentioned how much fun Ulysses Klaue has on screen. Perhaps Shuri has more fun. She gives her brother the finger after he returns to Wakanda following the early mission. She’s the tech wizard, and the obligatory gear-explanation scene leads to humor. She has her brother kick the new Black Panther suit, only to have him fly into a table. Careful, that’s the new king.
Marvel excels at blending whimsy, fun, and gravitas into blockbuster world-builders, and what moment in Black Panther better exemplifies that than a charging rhino sliding to a halt to lick the face of a human friend?
Black Panther’s settings deserve lauds. The sets are phenomenal, especially (for me) the herb garden where the kings imbibe the panther strength herb. I loved the panther figures standing in shallow waters. Panthers guard and announce entrance to many important places in Wakanda.
But it’s not the individual settings that make Wakanda a special place. The kingdom itself represents a sea change in action movies. Here is an African nation not beset with internal problems, not struggling with apartheid, post-colonialism, or post-slavery.
Wakanda has hip drummers, stunning costumes, and thousands of years of uninterrupted history and culture that bleed onto every frame. Okoye wears a wig she can’t stand in South Korea, because her position demands ritual baldness. T’Challa sports wing tattoos on his back during the ceremonial fight.
I mentioned the Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King, Jr. violent overthrow vs. peaceful cohabitation thing. T’Challa eventually integrates Killmonger’s ideas of outreach and sharing into his rule. Good. Wakanda might benefit; the rest of the world certainly will.
Killmonger lays the blame for the problems of the world’s black people at the feet of Wakanda. T’Challa’s father, when king, killed his own brother and left his nephew to rot in an American inner city, where he saw a people oppressed and without means to end that oppression. He heard stories of Wakanda, a land with the most beautiful sunsets, and the means to end that oppression.
Killmonger’s (and the film’s, to some extent) ideas chide and laud the United States. In reality, the US is the Wakanda of Earth, more advanced and powerful than any other nation. It spends plenty on aid to foreign nations and opens its doors to outsiders seeking a better life and opportunity. The US also has cities that leave behind its own citizens, citizens like Killmonger.
Although, Killmonger made himself great. Great at killing, yes, but undeniably great. He’s a walking contradiction. That he reached the heights of his profession is lost on Killmonger, because his hatred, born from Wakandan “diplomacy,” blinds him.
When I went to the theater to see Black Panther, I saw something I can’t remember seeing before. Adult black men and women taking turns standing beside the movie’s poster snapping photos. I mean adults in their 30s and 40s, not adults in Hollywood terms (25 and over).
I don’t remember any case of people of such an age so pleased to see a movie that they’s snap photos with the poster. I certainly don’t remember nonwhite Americans doing that.
Such is the power of Black Panther. There’s a big reason the movie outgrossed an Avengers movie in its opening weekend, and it’s personified by those folks I saw taking pictures. Black Panther is the first movie with that size of a budget and global reach that shows black people in a position of power, set in modern times, and is not about The Struggle. (OK, it’s a little bit about The Struggle, but its characters are not participants.)
I heard a commentator state that the film industry has long released successful movies with mostly black casts, citing 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. If you think 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight compare to Black Panther, you might as well compare Annie Hall and Schindler’s List.
Ryan Coogler made a fun action movie with black people on top, celebrating African customs in exactly the way Thor celebrates European customs, the way Captain America celebrates American military culture, the way Iron Man celebrates American industrial culture. To misunderstand Black Panther‘s success ignores this theme.
- One question I didn’t know needed answering: would you rather have a platoon of war rhinos or psychedelic panthers fighting for you? Sure, the panthers only exist in the astral plane, but I bet Shuri could cook up some potions for the real panthers.
Summary (50/68): 74%
Black Panther slaughtered the box office. Already the move has outearned The Avengers. We’re looking at The Dark Knight territory, and this for a February release. If Deadpool didn’t convince the studios, this movie should, that A successful movie can come out on any weekend of the year.
Officially Black Panther is the __th Marvel film in its 10-year-plus saga about Infinity Stone. Unofficially, it is the biggest, blackest superhero movie yet made, and a celebration of the thousands of years of culture that could have been. Anyone who can’t see that is a fool.