Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 14 minutes
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis
“It’s been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”- Sam Cooke
Director Ryan Coogler knows a thing or two about coming into a franchise and shaking things up in all the right ways. CREED was a genuine knock-out that had me cheering and crying almost in equal measure. And now, with BLACK PANTHER, he’s crafted a marvelous, monumental achievement, gifting us with inspirational heroes we need right now. Through sound, aesthetics and artistry, he’s given his entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe a unique identity. It gets the blood pumping in our veins, puts oxygen in our lungs, and makes our pupils widen in delight. Not only does it live up to the expected levels of epic exhilaration, it surpasses them, digging its claws into real-world social and political profundity. This is a genuine revelation – one that’s been a long time coming.
After the tragic death of his father, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home in Wakanda. He’s been chosen to sit on the throne, reigning as king of the isolated, technologically advanced African nation. But just as he accepts this new lot in life, two baddies, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), present themselves as a major obstacle – one that threatens to compromise the safety and future of the Wakandan people and their homeland.
To have a culture, concepts and iconography that’s so unabashedly feted through the lens of Afro-Futuristic comic book entertainment is tremendous. This looks, sounds and feels strikingly different from any other film out there – comic book based, or not. It plunges the audience into a world that’s a utopian celebration of pure African culture and ideology. Ruth E. Carter’s incredible costume designs are eye-popping, tactile and vibrant, expressing so much about the characters. Hannah Beachler’s astounding production design also adds to the film’s immersive quality. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is saturated, augmenting the unreality within a very relatable reality.
Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole pull inspiration from a variety of other authors’ visions in the Black Panther comics. They’ve concocted a harmonious blend visually and narratively, so you won’t be distracted by which elements belong to which comic. It works as a whole. Though it does fall prey to a few things typical of movies of this ilk (like a climax with three simultaneous battles), what it puts out there in terms of its sentiments is empowering.
For a Marvel movie, it feels revolutionary that the women of Wakanda are valued for their badass physical and intellectual acuity over being a love interest or succumbing to daddy issues. These dynamic women aren’t defined by their careers or physical beauty, but rather their smarts, strength and confidence. Goosebumps appear when we see the Dora Milaje, the King’s personal bodyguards, fight with conviction. Okoye’s (Danai Gurira) physical prowess steals the spotlight – her best moment being when she weaponizes her wig during an undercover mission. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is introduced to the audience first as a skilled spy, and then as social outreach proponent. It’s not until later we learn she’s T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend – and I’m positive that wasn’t done because the filmmakers forgot. Shuri (Latitia Wright) is more than just T’Challa’s sassy sixteen-year-old sister. She’s the smartest girl on the planet, and functions as this movie’s “Q” to her brother’s “James Bond.” Parity is how their society functions successfully. The equally strong men – like W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) – also respect their queens’ decisions without any condescension or doubt.
Perhaps most surprising for a Marvel movie, even one which blazes new ground, is that the antagonist has a highly resonant, emotional arc. It’s not often we see a villain with such an understandable drive. Jordan infuses his character with pathos, electricity, defiance and empathy, so it’s hard not to be moved by his journey. You might even find yourself shocked to be wiping away tears by the film’s end.
No moment in the two hour and fourteen minute run time is wasted. The opening portion, which is typically a throwaway segment that only services a McGuffin, means something to the narrative. Death, which is utilized worse in Marvel films than in most soap operas, actually means something to the characters. It’s integral to both the protagonist and antagonist’s quests. While they only scratch the surface of T’Challa’s inner struggle as he wrestles with becoming a wise, strong leader like his father, what’s there is enough to carry the narrative trajectory.
Coogler’s film satiates an instant fix for bold, crowd-pleasing entertainment, but there’s an unexpected kick long after the credits roll. For generations to come, and for those before who fought to see themselves represented so lovingly on screen as heroes, the legacy this art leaves is truly impacting.
BLACK PANTHER opens on February 16.