(Rated: PG [Canada] and PG-13 [MPAA] for prolonged sequences of action violence and a brief, rude gesture; directed by Ryan Coogler; stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis; run time: 134 min.)
A predictable, but epic and hopeful, comic book movie
By Ted Giese
MARVEL first introduced T’Challa as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to film fans back in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). In that film, terrorists killed T’Challa’s father T’Chaka (John Kani), the king of the secluded and secretive fictional African nation of Wakanda. At the time, T’Challa was visiting Austria for the signing of the international Sokovia Accords, which placed the Avengers under the supervision of a United Nations panel.
With the death of his father, T’Challa is in line to become King of Wakanda and assume the mantel of Black Panther, a semi-religious national superhero. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” details T’Challa’s coronation and the challenges flowing from taking on his father’s role in Wakandan government and society.
The opening scenes present the history of Wakanda and its deep, mythological cosmology, complete with a meteoroid composed of the precious metal “vibranium” hitting Africa millions of years ago. According to this history, there were five Wakandan tribes, four of which were united, while one, the Jabari, lived in isolation in the mountains.
The Jabari historically shunned the use of vibranium, the indestructible metal from which Captain America’s trademark shield is made. The alien metal, however, became the basic building block of Wakandan technology, allowing the kingdom to practice a strict isolationist policy and making them a sort of “Shangri-La meets El Dorado” hidden world.
Strong female characters
To gain and retain his place as king and Black Panther, T’Challa first contends with M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the Jabari tribe, and then later with his long-lost and spiteful cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). T’Challa succeeds with the aid of four strong women: his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), the Queen Mother; his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a tech-savvy innovator; Okoye (Danai Gurira), his spear-wielding general and head of royal security; and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), the spy and clandestine Wakandan agent who is also T’Challa’s love interest.
Wakanda’s isolation proves imperfect, however, as some who know about vibranium want to exploit it. In the first half of the film, the criminal boss and arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) tries to sell stolen vibranium to U.S. State Department employee Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). In the second half, Killmonger attempts to arm those of African descent with vibranium to stage an uprising and win justice for historical wrongs.
Political and religious elements
For a comic book film, “Black Panther” deals with some sophisticated political questions. For example, why did a super-technologically advanced country like Wakanda not step in and help fellow Africans during the slave trade? Why doesn’t it provide aid and relief to poor and war-torn neighboring countries? Why didn’t it fight to stop colonialism? These are the questions levelled at T’Challa by other characters in the film. T’Challa’s response is “Don’t hold me accountable for the decisions made by past generations.”
Before his death, King T’Chaka said to his son, “The world is changing. Soon there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”
Nevertheless, in “Black Panther” T’Challa is rewarded for his mercy towards M’Baku and is shown to be forgiving to those who rebelled against him.
As noted earlier, the Black Panther mantel has a religious component. As king, T’Challa is also the high priest of the Wakandan Panther cult, which is focused on ancestor worship.
Using a special heart-shaped flower and ritual burial, T’Challa gains access to super-human agility and power and interacts with a plane of existence inhabited by his ancestors. Families with young children will want to discuss this aspect of the film, since Christians remember and honor those who have fallen asleep in Christ Jesus, but won’t worship or seek conversation with them.
Mixed effectiveness in the action scenes
Setting aside politics and religion, there is one last question: Is “Black Panther” a good superhero film? There are two great action sequences in the movie, both set in Korea: one in an underground casino and the other on the streets of Busan, a port city. Other action sequences are brief, however, and both the final showdown in the vibranium mines and a Wakandan battle sequence use so much computer-generated imagery that the sense of danger is lessened.
Nevertheless, the film is entertaining. In it viewers will find a surprisingly fresh superhero movie, considering the number of derivative plot devices it uses.
“Black Panther” has a lot in common with last year’s “Thor Ragnarok” (2017), but where that film came across as irreverent in the face of a usurped throne and apocalyptic destruction, “Black Panther” is epic and hopeful, with actors who are clearly enjoying themselves. The Black Panther comics have been around for 52 years, and with this film Coogler and MARVEL have given the characters a new lease on life.
Listen to “Issues, Etc.” host Rev. Todd Wilken interview the Rev. Ted Giese about a Christian viewer’s perspective on “Black Panther” and other contemporary motion pictures.
The Rev. Ted Giese (firstname.lastname@example.org) is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter Online; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted Feb. 26, 2018