Courtesy of Marvel Studios
I understand we're only a few weeks into 2018, but I'd like to make the case for the first guaranteed Best Picture nominee at the Oscars in 2019.
That film is Ryan Coogler's sensational "Black Panther," which is the first entry in the Marvel universe from the lauded director and one that packs an emotional and cultural relevance never heard of in a superhero film. What usually is this case, and something that's become a staple in the MCU, is that all these films mesh together. They feature a lousy villain with hardly any impotence to their motives, and action sequences that, while impressive, never seem to elevate the film perhaps the way they should. It seems like all of that has been corrected with Coogler's specific attention to detail in creating the lavish world of Wakanda and fleshing out each and every character, including a bold face baddie with the best character arch in years.
Chadwick Boseman was first introduced to audiences as Prince T'Challa in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War" and you could hear the echoes for his own movie then, and Marvel didn't just put together a quick snack to appease our appetites, they created a full course meal. Partially why "Black Panther" is such a magnificent opus is that it really doesn't need Marvel to exist. Mainly because, each character is given an ample amount of time to develop and steal the spotlight from the titular hero, but Coogler doesn't overstuff his almost two and half hour ride with mindless subplots, and cheeky fan service (sorry, but you won't see a cameo from Captain America.) Instead, he infuses it with soul and heart, thus making every single frame of action spliced onto the screen feel earned rather than forced.
It's safe to assume, that many of us had questions about the fictional country of Wakanda when first mentioned a few years back. What is it exactly? How'd it came to be? - in Marvel fashion, the opening prologue details how five tribes came together to form one nation. But in the years since, their land has become quite virtuous and they've attracted the attention of some known warlords (specifically a wily terrorist by the name of Ulysses Grant - played with grit and tenacity by the always slam dunk Andy Serkis). Keeping in tune with the aforementioned cinematic universe, Wakanda, far ahead in technological advances than any country, is stacked with literal mountains of a known resource called Vibranium which is a setup to what is presumably the next installment in this franchise. Think infinity stones. Vibranium is powerful in the aspect that it absorbs damage and uses kinetic energy to help protect those who use it. Mainly in Black Panther's suit, which allows him to stand toe to toe with a maniac's weapon and still live to fight on. So you can see how dangerous it could be falling into the wrong hands.
"Black Panther" spans over two decades and a slew of international territories ranging from Nigeria to London, T'Challa is still reeling from the death of his father: but that also means he must assume his rightful place as King of Wakanda. Aside from his trusted ally, and fiercest warrior of the land Okoye (Danai Gurira) - T'Challa is backed with the aid and support of his smart and wisecracking sis Shuri (Letitia Wright - who quietly steals every scene she's in), old girlfriend turned spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), longtime mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker) and a trusted second in command, a general named W'Kabi ("Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya) that rides gigantic rhinos into battle that border on CGI overload.
While becoming King details its own set of standards and regulations, that also means something evil is lurking around the corner. This is quite possibly where the strongest aspect of "Black Panther" shines through, and his name is Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger. Jordan, no stranger to the dimensions of a Coogler film, explodes as the best villian Marvel has ever seen. Typically, Marvel writes cookie-cutter bad guys that hardly leave a lasting impression (can you tell me who the bad guy of "Doctor Strange" was without looking it up?) Here, Coogler, who also served as one of two writers, gives that extra layer to the character which is heart wrenching and diabolical at the same time. To reveal his arch would spoil the film, but it involves some shocking realizations and a ritual ceremony that is the best staging Marvel's done in a decade. For most of the film, it almost feels like we don't deserve his presence, it's just that good.
Then you have Boseman, who really has found his niche in this role. He's a leader you want charging into battle with you. We all knew he was special when he made his debut in "Civil War," yet nobody could prepare us for what he'd become today. You can immediately tell this isn't a normal Marvel film, because it has Coogler's handprints all over it, this is clearly the movie HE wanted to make: and producer Kevin Feige kept his hands out of the cookie jar.
Whie you could dissect the characters and their respective tribes for the remainder of this century, in the moment "Black Panther" speaks volumes about the power of pride and identity, especially in a climate that sometimes questions those ethics. Many will debate the cultural relevance of "Panther" for years to come, as they should, but most need to remember "Panther" for it's political standpoint that is endearing without being preachy. Still, one of the best aspects is how the script infuses each supporting player with their own story to tell. They don't just fight to protect T'Challa, they fight for the honor and respect that comes with the throne. Nobody is reverted to a damsel in this world: they don't wait behind for T'Challa, "he'll catch up" - says Nakia at one point during a crucial fight. They're smarter than most of their contemporaries. (Also, as a side note, Kendrick Lamar might find himself in the Oscar conversation next year for his outstanding soundtrack.)
By now, we all know there's strength in unity and the African heritage which "Panther" borrows from is allotted with much admiration. Most times, films of this nature have a tendency of forgetting where they came from. And with as much hype that's been swirling with this film since it's announcement, I was worried that it would start to feel like a Marvel carbon copy by act three. We can all breathe a little easier now because "Black Panther" isn't just a film that needs to be seen and appreciated: it demands to be heard. A