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Friday, February 16, 2018

Black Panther



Wakanda Forever!

Greetings from Wakanda! It's a nice place to visit and... goddamn it, why can't I live here forever? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to far-flung locales like Asgard, Knowhere, Sakaar, and uh, Queens, but it turns out the greatest destination of all is right in our own backyard. Well, Africa, which secretly houses the hidden nation of Wakanda. Director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther builds a sensational and inviting new universe within the Marvel Universe and populates it with a noble king, a dastardly but provocative villain, dynamic and inspiring women, and only two white people. (Okay, three, counting Bucky Barnes.) Truly, Wakanda is the best place on Earth.

We first met and immediately grew to love T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, but Black Panther only deepens our admiration for the Wakandan King. Newly crowned after the death of his father King T'Chaka (John Kani), T'Challa fends off two challengers to his throne while hunting down an old enemy, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the devious black market smuggler who has spent decades heisting Vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth, which is only found in Wakanda. Aside from an explosive jaunt in South Korea (and trips to Oakland, CA), the bulk of Black Panther vividly explores Wakanda and asks pointed questions about the sins of its past and its hopeful future.

Soon, T'Challa discovers a long-buried secret of his father's: a tragic tale of fratricide and the existence of his American-born cousin, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, all amazing swagger). The gradual reveal of Killmonger's history and why he covets the Wakandan throne elevates Black Panther to another level of superhero movie altogether. As does the thoughtful political debate the film inspires, where T'Challa wrestles with whether to shed Wakanda's millennia-held guise as a poor Third World nation and use their Vibranium technology to benefit the world. Meanwhile, Killmonger has his own ideas about that: conquest, and arming people of African descent with Vibranium weapons to forge a Wakandan Empire. T'Challa and his cousin Erik are two sides of the same coin, and their conflict is thrilling, deeply personal, and by the end, genuinely moving.

The Black Panther has a ball playing with all of the toys at his disposal, gleefully provided by the scene-stealer Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's irrepressible teenage sister who also happens to be the smartest person on the planet. Along with Shuri, the king is also surrounded by the most resplendent female cast ever in a Marvel movie. His mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is noble and proud. Wakanda's greatest warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the elite all-female Dora Milaje, is every bit as formidable as the king she protects. Best of all, Nakia (Lupita N'yongo) shatters the "Marvel Girlfriend" tradition by being devoted to her king while remaining independent, brave, globally-minded, and heroic in a fight. Nakia is as personally responsible for saving Wakanda as T'Challa is, a fact that does not escape his attention or appreciation.

Black Panther is not just a great Marvel superhero movie, it's one of the best-ever examples of the genre. Coogler stages thrilling action set pieces and not just honors Marvel's proven comic book movie tropes but also invokes classic James Bond movie iconography with a "Q scene" of T'Challa receiving upgraded tech, an eye-popping casino action sequence, and a glorious Bond-like end credits sequence. (Black Panther is as great a Bond movie as Skyfall, in fact.) The third act is reminiscent of and betters The Phantom Menace, with three simultaneous action sequences: a battle between two armies in a field, an aerial dogfight, and the hero and villain battling in a high-tech subterranean location that seems to descend into infinity. Through it all, we heartily cheer on the heroes while the villains maintain understandable motivations as they commit their nefarious acts. Also, Black Panther is the only superhero movie where two of the only three white people in it are missing their left arms. Like Wakanda itself, that's a record that should remain forever unbroken.

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