Black Panther – A Review

This weekend, pretty much everyone in the United States and I went to see Black Panther. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of this film ever since the Black Panther character made his triumphant debut in Captain America: Civil War. My anticipation was whetted further with the news of the all-star cast that they had assembled for Black Panther and the fact that director Ryan Coogler would be behind the camera. Though Black Panther would only be Coogler’s third full-length feature, based on his previous work I was confident that he was the man to oversee this important and historic film. The fact that Kendrick Lamar was curating the soundtrack was really just icing on the cake – all the ingredients were there for Black Panther to be something very special.

Of course, what looks good on paper doesn’t always match up to the final product. Coogler and company had to execute for Black Panther to be a success. And while I was confident, part of me was also a little concerned. There’s a lot of pressure inherent with making a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Black Panther is not your average Marvel movie. By being the first major superhero movie that featured not only a black main character, but an almost exclusively black cast, Black Panther had a level of expectation and responsibility attached to it that perhaps no superhero movie other than Wonder Woman has had to endure. Would the hype of Black Panther be too much to live up to?

Thankfully, Black Panther totally rose to the occasion and more than exceeded expectations. Thanks to uniformly outstanding performances, thrilling action sequences, and a well-thought out story, Black Panther is arguably one of the best Marvel movies to date. I’ve been thinking about the film a lot since I saw it on Saturday, which is unusual for one of these blockbuster popcorn movies. Black Panther sticks with you and gives you a lot to think about and unpack – yet still manages to be a hell of a fun ride.

Black Panther picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, as T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to become king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani). Though Wakanda is a country of amazing technological advances and reserves of the metal vibranium, it has remained hidden from the rest of the world. As he ascends the throne, T’Challa must defend Wakanda from outside forces as well as the consequences of a family secret.

One of the smartest moves that I think Marvel made with the character of Black Panther was to introduce him in another movie and get some of his backstory out of the way. We didn’t learn everything about Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, but we learned enough that Black Panther didn’t have to spend a lot of time unpacking his origin story. Black Panther already has a lot to do, in that it is introducing a bevy of supporting characters as well as introducing the world of Wakanda; having to introduce the character from whole cloth in this film would have been almost too much to do.

Because the basics have already been established, Black Panther basically can hit the ground running. The movie opens with a beautiful primer on the history of Wakanda and then continues to do its world building as the movie progresses. As a result, even though this is the first time that the viewer has spent much time in Wakanda, the country feels fully realized and lived in. Unlike some of the other foreign places where Marvel movies have taken place, Wakanda feels like an actual place that we’ve known about forever – and it fully embraces its African heritage. Though the film does move to other locales, the time spent in Wakanda with its royalty really makes all the difference.

I think it’s a credit to Black Panther that the titular character is perhaps among the less interesting people in the film. That is no critique of Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal, which continues to be great, but rather speaks to the deep bench of secondary characters that the film introduces and who feel like old friends by the end credits. This movie has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors and in more than one occasion I am pretty sure that we are watching a star being born.

Much has rightfully been made about the importance of Black Panther for its black representation, but this film is also crucial in its depiction of women as well. The strongest, smartest, and most bad-ass characters in Black Panther are all black women; Dora Milaje, the Special Forces team that protects the king, is made up exclusively of women warriors. I was already a fan of Danai Gurira from her work on Walking Dead, but she is so spectacular in this movie that she almost stole the whole damn film as Okoye, the greatest warrior in Wakanda. There is a fight scene in a casino where she is simply elegance in motion; the cinematography of her kicking ass in a beautiful red dress is seared in my memory. Relative newcomer Letitia Wright gives a breakout performance in her role as T’Challa little sister Shuri, who also is the head of all technological development in Wakanda. She gets some of the biggest laughs of the film and just lights up the screen. Lupita Nyong’o is obviously an amazing actress, but she gets to throw down with the best of them as Nakia, a Wakanda spy and T’Challa’s ex. Angela Bassett always makes everything better and Black Panther is no exception; she has a small role as Ramonda, T’Challa and Shuri’s mother and former queen.

Of course, the men in Black Panther are no slouches either. The internet has fallen in love with Winston Duke, who plays M’Baku, head of the Jabari, Wakanda’s mountain tribe, and they aren’t wrong for doing so. He’s both terrifying and hilarious, which is a pretty hard balance to find. He easily got some of the biggest laughs and cheers during the screening I was at. Daniel Kaluuya continues to do excellent work as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi. Andy Serkis gets to step out from behind his usual motion capture performances to be on-screen as bad guy Ulysses Klaue. Black Panther is basically its own stand-alone movie and there are very few attempts to tie this film into the larger MCU. The one exception is the presence of Martin Freeman, who reprises his role as Everett K. Ross that he originated in Captain America: Civil War. He isn’t a central part of the narrative, but he provides the minimal connective tissue to the wider Marvel universe.

Black Panther has an embarrassment of riches, including having the best Marvel villain of all time (take that Loki). As Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan gives Marvel perhaps the first bad guy that you not only sympathize with, but who has a legitimate beef. Most of the time in Marvel movies, the villains are kind of cartoonish in their quest for an infinity stone or world domination. There isn’t much method to their madness – they just want power. With Killmonger, Black Panther presents a very nuanced depiction of T’Challa’s foil. On more than one occasion when Killmonger is laying out his complaints, you can’t help but think he has a point. Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler bring out the best in each other – Black Panther marks their third collaboration – and this film is no exception. There are heavy issues at play in the conflict between Killmonger and Black Panther with plenty of shades of grey to consider. Their clash is almost Shakespearean and Jordan is clearly having some fun with the role. Killmonger has a swagger and wardrobe that makes you pay attention to him. Killmonger isn’t 100% right, but he isn’t 100% wrong either; viewers will be forgiven if they temporarily forget who their allegiance is supposed to be with. Jordan also has a scene with Sterling K. Brown in the movie that brought more than a few people to tears.

As much as I enjoyed Black Panther, I don’t know that I’m ready to say that it’s my favorite Marvel film. Part of that is fatigue with the genre – for all the things that Black Panther does to innovate and challenge expectations, it is still a superhero movie. There were some twists and turns that I thought were somewhat predictable, given how many Marvel movies in particular, and movies in general, that I’ve seen. While it was visually dazzling and had strong performances across the board, there were some pacing issues where I thought things moved a little slow. I ride hard for the Captain America films and I have a soft spot for all things Guardian of the Galaxy, but while I don’t know that I can say Black Panther is my favorite Marvel film, it is certainly in the conversation.

Some other random thoughts:

  • There are two post credit clips in Black Panther, so make sure to stay all the way to the end.
  • I sincerely hope that Shuri and Tony Stark cross paths at some point so she can clown on his tech.
  • There is so much goodness in this movie that I didn’t even get to discuss the rhinos!
  • I cannot overstate how beautiful this film is. I know Wakanda isn’t real, but it would be a gorgeous place to visit.
  • Also – this may seriously be the best looking cast ever assembled. Everyone is so good looking – I had to look up to see how old Michael B. Jordan is to make sure he was age-appropriate. Also related – what’s up, Winston Duke.

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  • Donald Glover gave some notes on the Black Panther script and there were a few places where I definitely think I felt his influence.

I am so happy that I saw Black Panther is a packed theater with a diverse crowd. There were a lot of families at the screening I was at, and knowing that some of these children were seeing people that looked like them for the first time as superheroes made my heart full. It also made me happy that some boys (and their parents) who may have opted out of Wonder Woman because it was “too girly” were tricked into seeing a film that provided plenty of examples of strong women. Black Panther could have buckled under the weight of expectation and responsibility, but instead it raised the bar for the whole damn genre while making history. With the runaway success of both Black Panther and Wonder Woman, hopefully this changes the conversation about what kind of movies can be successful.

Black Panther is currently in theaters nationwide.

Creed – A Review

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When I was five years old, I was friends with another little girl with whom I occasionally used to go to the movies. Growing up, I didn’t go to the cinema very often – if we did go to see a movie, it was more than likely at the drive-in – so this was a special treat. She and I would take turns picking what movie we would go see and our parents would alternate who was responsible for taking us. When it was her turn, she selected a re-release of Alice in Wonderland, marking my only exposure to Disney movies until I was a teenager. When it was my turn to pick, I selected Rocky III – what can I say, I was a weird kid. Her father, who was in charge of chaperoning this particular film outing, was pretty over the moon with this choice and I cemented myself as a cool kid in his eyes. I hadn’t seen any of the other Rocky films, so I’m guessing my pick had more to do with Mr. T and Hulk Hogan being in the movie than anything else; regardless, a Rocky fan was born. I would eventually go on to see all the rest of the films in the franchise, with the exception of Rocky V, which I think we as a nation have just agreed to pretend never happened.

But while I enjoyed all of the Rocky installments, by the time 2006’s Rocky Balboa came out I was curious if there were any more stories left for this franchise to tell. I really liked Balboa, but it seemed like a fitting ending point. The story had basically come full circle, with Balboa nicely paralleling the original Rocky. When I heard that a new film about Apollo Creed’s son was moving forward, I was dubious that they could wring that much more out of a franchise after nearly 40 years and six movies deep. Hollywood hasn’t exactly been bursting with original ideas the last few years, so I went into Creed prepared for a rehashing of Rocky’s greatest hits and a reliance on nostalgia rather than storytelling. I was rooting for Creed to at least be watchable, not only from an affinity for the franchise in and of itself, but because of an affinity that I had for star Michael B. Jordan. Fresh off the heels of the disastrous Fantastic Four reboot, I didn’t want another disappointing film to tarnish his career. If Creed was mediocre, I was ready to call that a win for all involved.

What I had not prepared myself for Creed to win me over completely, not by decision but by knockout. This film not only reinvigorates the franchise in a way that I didn’t think was possible, but has a different spin on the story and offers a different perspective. Creed is full of fantastic performances, led by the always great Michael B. Jordan, who managed to transform himself mentally and physically into a fighter. This may also be the best performance of Sylvester Stallone’s career and the performance shows a lack of vanity as his Rocky is an older guy facing health issues. Though I’m sure Stallone could still punch a dude out if he had to, he allows himself to be less than vital in this film and assume basically the role of Burgess Meredith from the original Rocky. Creed in many ways is the symbolic passing of the torch and they handle that transition flawlessly. There is enough for Stallone to do so that he doesn’t feel superfluous – he has his own emotional arc in the film – but this is most decidedly Jordan’s movie.

In Creed, Jordan plays Adonis “Donny” Johnson, the illegitimate child of boxing great Apollo Creed. Donny has no idea who his father is, as Apollo was killed in a fight before he was born, but he is innately drawn to boxing. The kids just loves to fight and that feeling doesn’t subside once he discovers his paternity or is provided every advantage in life. Over the objections of his family, Donny quits his well-paying white collar corporate job to devote himself to boxing full time. When no local trainers will work with him, he packs up his things and seeks out his father’s friend and rival Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia. Rocky had no idea that Donny existed and is not initially interested in training the newcomer. However, much like Donny, Rocky can’t ignore the call of the boxing ring and eventually concedes to becoming his trainer. Donny also becomes romantically involved with his neighbor Bianca, a singer-songwriter who is also chasing her dream at all costs. In a lot of other movies, the role of Donny’s girlfriend would be a thankless performance, but in Creed they spend the time to make Bianca a fully realized character as well and respect her enough to be interested in her perspective and views. She isn’t just there to tell Donny not to fight or to give him someone to come home to; it’s a small thing, but an important distinction.

I enjoyed Creed immensely, but I did not anticipate my fondness for Jordan making the boxing scenes somewhat difficult for me to watch. I’ve been a fan of Jordan since he debuted on The Wire in 2002 as Wallace and have followed his career ever since. And while I can tell the difference between fiction and reality, it somehow did not make me any less anxious during Donny’s climactic boxing match; every time Donny/Jordan took a punch to the face or a particularly brutal body shot, I became incredibly anxious. I noticed that I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat and had to fight the inclination to cover my eyes. For someone who is normally pretty immune to violence on the big screen, this is a testament to how realistic the character of Donny became. Sure, I have a soft spot in my heart for the actor, but my reaction was more than that. Creed made me care about Donny and his physical welfare. I was totally invested and had no idea what the ultimate outcome would be. That’s good movie making.

Some other thoughts:

  • Wire alert – not only does Creed star Michael B. Jordan, but it also features a brief appearance by Wood Harris (aka Avon Barksdale). The duo even share a scene together.
  • I had to laugh to myself during the scene where Michael WIlbon and Tony Kornheiser debate whether the news that Apollo Creed had an illegitimate son tarnished his legacy. Considering what shenanigans professional athletes have gotten into lately (murder, rape, domestic violence, guns, etc.) no one is batting an eye over one child born out of wedlock – especially in boxing, where, you know, one guy bit off enough guy’s ear during the match.
  • I’ve only spent a negligible amount of time in Philly, but from my experience this movie pretty much nailed the Philadelphia experience, in particular the gray hues that hang over the city during the winter months.
  • The final fight takes place in Goodison Park, which happens to be the home stadium for the Everton football club (the team I root for).
  • Haha…Watch Scott Stapp of the band Creed review the movie Creed.
  • You don’t need to be a Rocky fan to enjoy Creed, but if you happen to like the franchise there are plenty of little nods to previous films that you’ll recognize.
  • Speaking of which – Creed revels who won that secret third fight between Rocky and Apollo!

Creed was way better than it had any business being; while this could have been a film that limped across the finish line as a final cash grab from Rocky fans, it instead pumped a whole new life into the franchise. The acting was stellar, the story felt fresh and original and I’m already hopeful that Creed II will be in development. Creed pumped me up and made me cry; don’t be surprised if Sylvester Stallone gets a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Michael B. Jordan has solidified his place as a star and director Ryan Coogler has demonstrated that it is possible for relatively new directors to take over a major franchise and not crash and burn. It is amazing that this is only his second movie (his first, Fruitvale Station, also starred Jordan and was a very powerful film). I enjoyed this movie so much; everyone involved with Creed should be proud of the finished product. From top to bottom, it was an energetic, funny, touching and heartwarming film.