Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: Ryan Coogler’s emotionally charged directorial debut Fruitvale Station was my favorite film of 2013. His follow-up, Creed, struck a bone-deep nerve inside me and was one of my two favorite films of 2015. It didn’t hurt in the least bit that the star of both films was Michael B. Jordan, who’s been raising his game with every project from his early start in The Wire to Chronicle (my favorite film of 2012) and beyond.
As a longtime comics fan who counts Christopher Priest’s ’90s runs on Marvel’s Black Panther as one of the all-time greats, and who wouldn’t have dreamed of this past weekend ever happening as a kid, I was beyond excited when the reins for the big Panther motion picture were handed over to Coogler, and that Jordan would be a part of it.
In a rare move for me, I kept my expectations unreasonably high. In a rare move for Hollywood, my expectations were blown away.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Previously on Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman (42, Persons Unknown) stepped onto the big Marvel Cinematic Universe stage as T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, King of Wakanda, possessors of the alien magical super-metal vibranium. T’Chaka’s death in a super-villain’s bombing plot not only spurred T’Challa to leap into his first public adventure as the superheroic Black Panther, as we see moving forward into this next chapter it also put T’Challa on deck to inherit the throne. But heavy is the head even before the new king wears the crown, as problems surround him on all sides. There’s the smuggler Ulysses Klaue (a madly cackling Andy Serkis, returning from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the comics villain Klaw), who’s stolen 500 pounds of vibranium from his kingdom and aims to fuel new weaponry in the outside world. His coronation hits a snag when he’s challenged to a pre-throning duel by rival chieftain M’Baku (Winston Duke), who in the comics was a super-villain called the Man-Ape, whose costume was an actual gorilla skin, which has been wisely deleted from this continuity. Most potentially threatening of all is a young gun nicknamed Killmonger (the aforementioned Jordan), an ex-military African-American playing a long game involving his family, Wakanda’s future, and a grudge as deep as the ocean between them.
Speaking of which, there’s the matter of Wakanda itself, an isolationist nation hidden from the outside world both by lucky natural topography and by an advanced miles-wide sci-fi camouflage force field. All around their seemingly 23nd-century paradise, real-world African nations are falling to pieces, ravaged by man’s inhumanity to man. And yet Wakanda stands by and does virtually nothing. As long as Wakanda’s five tribes live in peace, as long as vibranium keeps making their world go around, and as long as outsiders can’t sully their backyard, Wakanda remains pretty self-satisfied with keeping its own trains running on time. In between all those awesome super-villain fights, can T’Challa still justify standing by and sticking to self-interest while letting evil overrun the rest of the world?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Black Panther is jammed with so many faces I recognized from elsewhere (and so many of them bringing Oscar cred!) that I expect the sequels to do for the black acting community what the Harry Potter series did for British actors. Those fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor include:
* the regal Angela Bassett as Wakanda’s Queen Mother
* Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, The Force Awakens) as T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend Nakia, now acting on His Majesty’s behalf as a Ms. James Bond
* Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead) as Okoye, head of his security-warrior detail the Dora Milaje
* Letitia Wright (last seen in a key episode of Doctor Who) as T’Challa’s sister Shuri, an accelerated STEM genius who’s their answer to Bond’s Q and makes all the best toys
* Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as W’Kabi, head of another Wakandan tribe who’s cool with Our Hero as long as he gets results
* Grizzled sage Forest Whitaker as the mandatory Grizzled Sage
* Sterling K. Brown (NBC’s This Is Us) as a key relative in flashbacks
Three Civil War veterans also return for another round: Martin Freeman as CIA liaison Everett Ross, who stumbles across their shenanigans by accident but tags along for the rest of the ride; Florence Kasumba as Ayo, another Dora Milaje who now has a name to go with her formidable presence; and John Kani straight out of the spirit world as the late King T’Chaka. A bonus fourth Civil War player pops up in the scene after the Black Panther end credits.
Blink and you’ll miss young Alex Hibbert from last year’s Moonlight cameoing as an Oakland basketball kid. And of course there’s Stan Lee, this time as a gambler too happy to help himself.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? It’s awfully easy and white-ish to joke about Panther being one of the most “woke” films of 2018, but it nonetheless covers a broad range of subjects great and small, including but not limited to:
* The drawbacks of tribalism (sometimes literally), and that not-so-inspirational moment when crippling fears turn self-preservation into selfish, self-interested isolationism
* The debate over whether those with the greatest resources have a moral or spiritual duty to share with the needier, whether opening ourselves to that vulnerability is worth the risk, or whether that counts as socialism — or worse, as enabling others’ weaknesses (tempted to throw in a short speech here about turning the other cheek, but nah)
* The sometimes tenuous relationships between African-Americans and actual Africans
* The profitability of international instability to certain greedy parties
* The emotional damage that can be wrought by growing up without a father figure (see also: Creed)
* How utterly amazing women can be when they possess nerves of steel and The MAN isn’t holding them back
Nitpicking? Several scenes are subtitled as characters alternate between African dialects. I’m cool with subtitles, but when one of them read, “What is wrong my son?” with no comma before the direct address, I obsessed on that punctuation oversight for the next ten minutes. I expect no proofreading on the internet (or sometimes in my own posts) but I’m sure Hollywood can afford some.
My wife and I laughed at a scene where a particular state of affairs involves relevant positions in exactly three other cities: New York, London, and Hong Kong. She just watched Doctor Strange with me the other night, so we chuckled to hear the same three cities reused here from there, this time not for their magical quotient but because they’re apparently the three cities most likely to be pleasing to an international movie-going audience.
An itty-bitty part of me is also bugged that T’Challa himself sometimes gets lost in the crowd of actors, and frequently overshadowed, but that’s bound to happen when this high-caliber an ensemble agrees to unite and stand tall together.
So what’s to like? Basically everything else? After a quarter-ton of front-loaded exposition explains Wakandan history to non-comics readers in a shorter timespan than a Lord of the Rings prologue, the chain of events steadily escalates from simple spy-thriller action to internecine politics to Wakandan national crisis complete with a Lord of the Rings war zone that even tosses in a few armored animals for kicks, plus some bonus spaceships that not even Gandalf’s eagle pals could’ve stopped. All of this occurs in a wondrously designed country with African architectural and sartorial influences beneath the sparkling futurist veneer. Wakanda has its own visual identity from top to bottom and is not just Black Asgard.
Incredibly, despite the size of the cast, very nearly everyone in the cast’s higher tiers has their share of impressive feats and quotable scenes. I would watch ten more sequels with just Gurira and Wright, Okoye and Shuri, as soldier and scientist fighting back-to-back against entire invading armies. Together they bring a sophisticated mettle and a righteous fury to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where so many of their predecessors have skated by on slick attitudes and quips, but with no sense of personal stakes or pulses rising above 85. When either of them is onscreen, they’re winning the scene. When they team up, as in the climactic free-for-all, you do not want to be the extras crossing their warpath.
Meanwhile in the masthead, Boseman is sufficiently regal yet humbled as Our Hero. Jordan nets three-for-three for Coogler as one of the most complicated super-villains around. His palpable anger and world-domination schemes aren’t just because he’s power-mad — he has reasons for setting fire to everything in his path, and not all of them are unjustified. (Granted, his methods are absolute overkill, but when you learn what he’s lost and why it was lost, suddenly it’s not so hard for the audience to start debating both sides.) But I could go on and on about how well everyone else comes off. Even M’Baku, who in his early scenes merely seems like the macho head of Black Slytherin, reveals layers and a surprising sense of humor when later events lead his way. Everyone who has more than five lines in this film is in nothing less than their finest form.
Best of all for would-be newcomers, encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel’s previous seventeen films is beneficial, but not really necessary. Though the consequences of Civil War reverberate through the first hour, they’re recapped succinctly throughout the course of exchanges so that anyone can quickly adapt and join the festivities. All you need to know is T’Challa has super-powers, his dad is dead, his country is a sci-tech wonderland, vibranium can do everything, and Everett Ross is a cranky old acquaintance who can be helpful if it suits him. Now you’re good to go.
I wrote in a previous entry, “Much as I love what director Ryan Coogler has accomplished both [in Creed] and in his previous achievement, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, if his next film is a Disney merchandising machine I promise I shall have the most disappointed scowl in movie-fan history.” I’m thrilled to see Past-Me proven wrong. I have no doubt Black Panther will remain one of my favorite films of 2018 over the next ten months, but if other directors care to top it, they’re more than welcome to try. You come at the King, you best not miss.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are scenes during and after the Black Panther end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship, but really, why not just go see it a second time?]
…during the end credits: Our Heroes travel to UN headquarters in Vienna (which I didn’t know existed but is a real thing), where T’Challa holds a press conference proudly announcing Wakanda’s entry into international affairs. As T’Challa summarizes the theme of worldwide peace and brotherhood: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” If you prefer a life lived in hermetic bubbles or gated communities, Wakanda no longer shares your fear.
And in that final scene after the end credits, local Wakandan kids playfully tease their oddball neighbor as he wakes up to a beautiful African sunrise. Special guest star Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, the former Winter Soldier, is feeling closer to recovery after his grievous Civil War wounds, and a bit disaffected at the nickname the kids have chosen for him: ‘White Wolf”.
The name belongs to an ally of Panther’s from the comics, but he wasn’t Bucky. Presumably we’re about to see another divergence from comics lore…to be continued May 4th in Avengers: Infinity War, which I really, really hope ends with Okoye carrying around Thanos’ head on a pike.