(As most readers of my reviews know, Spider-Man is my all-time favorite superhero.)
This was 12 years ago, I would say, and the Black Panther has come a long way since then.
Ryan Coogler's ("Fruitvale Station," "Creed") "Black Panther" arrives in a 2018 dominated by racial and social debate (and controversy) - not unlike the time that the Black Panther character first debuted at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s. The Black Panther first appeared in a two-part origin story - "Fantastic Four #52" and "Fantastic Four #53" (July 1966-August 1966) - and there he single-handedly defeated the Fantastic Four in order to test his skills in preparation for his battle with his arch-nemesis Ulysses Klaw. Black Panther later became one of the Fantastic Four's closest allies, as well as a member of the Avengers.
"Black Panther," the film, has many firsts going for it. It would be the first superhero film with a black director (Coogler), the first superhero film with a largely black cast including strong portrayals of black femininity (and featuring white actors in roles usually reserved for minorities), the first superhero film to display an entirely fictional African culture and civilization in a positive non-stereotypical light, and of course it's a superhero film about the first black superhero ever created (and the first black comic book character that was ALSO not a racist stereotype). It achieves many of its objectives, even if every now and then it slips into some of the corniness and silly comedy that I believe has come to define many modern superhero movies since Disney acquired Marvel nearly a decade ago.
"Black Panther" is in some respects quite different from most big-budgeted superhero epics of late. The film has a decidedly political slant to it, which I see that some viewers have already commented negatively about. This doesn't give me some of the pause that it should have, and, after viewing the film for myself, I saw that these politics aim to address a key issue that I've often wondered myself about the Black Panther, and his home country - the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth.
The Black Panther is, of course, the King of Wakanda, and his real name is T'Challa (played here by the mesmerizing Chadwick Boseman). In "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), that was where the Black Panther was first introduced into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and in his first outing his father, the previous Black Panther and king of Wakanda, was killed in a terrorist bombing. Now as the new king of Wakanda, T'Challa finds himself tasked with the enormous burden of being leader to his country and his people, who have remained socially isolated from the rest of the world and become the most technologically advanced country not just on the African continent, but possibly the whole world.
Wakanda has managed to thrive, and survive, hundreds of years without having to face the horrors of colonization and exploitation by outside forces, by those who want what has led to Wakanda's vast wealth and technological prowess - the alien metal vibranium. But all this is about to change with the arrival of arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). But Klaue is merely a puppet in the scheme of Erik Stevens (Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan), a former U.S. military black ops mercenary and hired assassin who now goes by the name "Killmonger," to lay claim to the Wakandan throne. It turns out that Killmonger also has a tragic connection to the Black Panther's past.
I have to say that I was quite well impressed by "Black Panther." Some of the early comments I had heard about the film were proven true. The one that stuck out to me the most was the villain Killmonger. Going back to what I said earlier about this film's politics, the character of Killmonger presents an argument about his motivations for villainy that are hard to counter: he forces Wakanda to face up to its greatest moral contradiction, which is its isolationism. His goals are just as much personal as they are political, and this gives him some much-needed dramatic and emotional dimensions to not make him seem like so many bland and poorly defined super-villains of recent memory. That is what I appreciated most in Michael B. Jordan's ruthless, yet ultimately sympathetic, portrayal of such a dangerous and fascinating character.
The film has the usual sensational special effects-driven action scenes that are cool-looking but tend to distract from a film outing that had a lot of firsts going for it, and could have been very different from most other superhero films of the last decade. (Coogler, as the film's co-screenwriter, was at least wise enough to not serve up every other piece of dialogue as a punchline.) The Black Panther, to me, would have worked a lot better if it was a stand-alone picture and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but what can I do?
Ultimately, "Black Panther" did not disappoint. Ryan Coogler had a huge task ahead of him when he made this film and despite a few faults, he delivered. "Black Panther" will undoubtedly win the weekend, if not an entirely new generation of young Marvel Comics readers.