Black Panther: Royal Rumble

LONG LIVE THE KING. 

At the premiere of this entry in the Marvel franchise, the praise was universal and looked a little bit like how Get Out (2017) was received. Not only were both movies hailed as excellent genre examples, but critics and reporters also frequently pointed out how important they were in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2016. Representation is incredibly important, but films still have to be good on their own regardless of politics. Get Out had a very clever story, but wasn’t a knockout to me as a horror movie.

In the case of Black Panther, not only is it a clever story, but also a superior superhero movie that doesn’t really look or feel like anything Marvel has produced before.

The first time we met T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was in Captain America: Civil War (2016) where his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), was killed. Now he’s returning to his country, Wakanda, to be crowned king. Before that can happen there must be a coronation ceremony where all the tribes accept T’Challa as king. He’s challenged by the leader of the Jabari tribe, the only one not to be a formal part of Wakanda, but survives the fight and is crowned. At the same time, black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), steals a priceless Wakandan object from a museum, helped by Erik ”Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a young black ops soldier with a secret past and agenda…

Begins with two prologues
I had similar feelings about Thor: Ragnarok (2017), even if it didn’t reach these heights. Looking more like a comedy, the film successfully fused the Marvel formula with the director’s sensibilities. The same is true in this case. Before the story starts in present-day Wakanda, there are two prologues. One of them tells the fanciful story of how a meteorite crashed in the heart of Africa many centuries ago, containing a mysterious metal called vibranium, which became a mighty power source that united tribes and today fuels an advanced economy posing as a third-world country.

The other prologue takes us to Oakland, California in 1992, the place where director Ryan Coogler grew up. The filmmaker who broke through with Fruitvale Station (2013) has put his personal mark here as well, grounding the adventure in his own backyard. The story is smart and introduces the question of how to handle something as powerful as vibranium. Can it be presented to the rest of the world in a responsible way? The chief villain of the story wants to use it as revenge on the world outside Wakanda, the ”colonizers”. We understand this character because he has personal and political reasons to hold his beliefs, even if they are motivated by authoritarianism and violence.

Jordan is convincing as the cocky, hate-filled Killmonger; the cast has charming performances by Boseman as a king who needs to find the true purpose for his nation, Danai Gurira as T’Challa’s proud bodyguard, and Serkis as the lustfully evil arms dealer. Martin Freeman also returns from Captain America: Civil War as the CIA agent who becomes involved in Wakanda’s politics.

Appealingly photographed adventure in 3D that is consistently entertaining and colorful, with great action and a final showdown between hero and antagonist that doesn’t have us looking at our watches; their battle is emotional. The technical details are topnotch, creating the look and style of Wakanda and its people and place in Africa. The American connection is evident, not just through Coogler’s personal touch, but also the songs on the soundtrack, curated by Kendrick Lamar.

Black Panther 2018-U.S. 134 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Kevin Feige. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole. Comic Book: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby. Cinematography: Rachel Morrison. Music: Ludwig Göransson. Song: ”Pray for Me” (performed by Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd), ”All the Stars” (performed by Kendrick Lamar, SZA). Cast: Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa/Black Panther), Michael B. Jordan (N’Jadaka/Erik ”Killmonger” Stevens), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya… Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. Cameos: Stan Lee, Sebastian Stan.

Last word: “At the end of the day the challenge of it is flying. The Warrior Falls sequence, even though it was cold in the winter of Atlanta, and you know, you’re half naked in the water… At a certain point you have a moment out there where the sun is setting and it’s beautiful and you feel this euphoria while you’re doing this. We had like hundreds of extras on the cliffs on the rocks out there and drums playing. So we had a musical set and in between takes you would have moments where everybody was just kinda partying to a degree. Just to keep the morale up and that energy gets flowing and starts to echo off of the rocks.” (Boseman, Complex)

 

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