“Black Panther” is the 18th movie in the Marvel Universe canon and one of the best — likely to entertain and thrill the hardcore geeks who waited breathlessly for months (years, decades) for this story to take center stage as well as the more casual but still enthusiastic and massive global fan base for superhero movies.
Even if you’re not normally into this genre, consider this. If you appreciate finely honed storytelling with a Shakespearean core; winning performances from an enormously talented ensemble; provocative premises touching on isolationism, revolution and cultures of oppression, and oh yeah, tons of whiz-bang action sequences and good humor — then you should see “Black Panther.”
It’s one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this decade.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) adheres to the basic framework of the classic superhero origins story, from the flashback prelude all the way to the CGI-charged climactic battle sequences, but so much of the journey is a unique and smart and beautifully rendered adventure.
This is of course primarily the story of T’Challa/Black Panther (played by bona fide movie star Chadwick Boseman, the lead in the biopics “42,” “Get on Up” and “Marshall”), but rarely have we seen a comic book movie with such a wonderful bounty of supporting characters.
I counted at least six next-tier players whose stories could easily carry an entire movie. And that might be underselling it.
The main story in “Black Panther” takes place just after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” with T’Challa ascending to the throne of the independent African nation of Wakanda.
To the outside world, Wakanda is a seemingly insignificant, Third World land of farmers, but the mountains and the rainforest are merely cover for a thriving, wealthy and technologically advanced metropolis.
“This never gets old,” says T’Challa as his badass spaceship swoops in on Wakanda, and we readily understand the sentiment. As glorious music reminiscent of “The Lion King” swells, we see a stunning and gorgeous world, from the outlying countryside to the bustling main city, with skyscrapers reaching to the heavens, pristine waterfalls, and even a nifty high-speed elevated rail system.
Little wonder Wakanda’s leaders have a centuries-deep policy of keeping its magnificence to itself. They don’t accept aid from the outside world — but they never offer help, either, despite their abundance of resources.
This becomes the major conflict in “Black Panther,” when the revenge-minded killing machine actually known as Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, re-teaming with his “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station” director) makes the case Wakanda is ignoring the plight of hundreds of millions of people of color all over the world, and can no longer turn its back on its brothers and sisters. Killmonger aims to take the throne from T’Challa by any means necessary and use all of Wakanda’s resources to turn the tables, worldwide.
Make no mistake: Killmonger is bad news, at times a hiss-worthy villain. But in some ways he’s like a more serious-minded Loki — far more complex and more sympathetic than your typical, CGI-created, fire-breathing, deep-voice-bellowing superhero foe.
Soon after T’Challa is crowned king in an exciting ceremony in which he’s nearly killed (I’ll say no more), he sets off for South Korea to take down a cackling madman arms merchant named Ulysses Klaue (motion capture king Andy Serkis, who is great in this “full-bodied” role), who has stolen an ancient Wakandan weapon made of the precious and all-powerful vibranium.
T’Challa is accompanied by a great warrior, Gen. Okoye (Danai Gurira from “The Walking Dead”) and the superspy Nakia (Lupito Nyong’o), who happens to be his ex-girlfriend, and it’s clear T’challa would like to remove that “ex” from the label.
Let’s just say the mission doesn’t go exactly as planned.
The support team back home includes T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett); his uncle, the wise and learned Zuri (Forest Whitaker); his best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and his little sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).
You are going to hear again and again how Letitia Wright steals every scene she’s in as the brilliant, hilarious, fiercely loyal Shuri. That’s because Letitia Wright indeed does every steal every scene she’s in — but in an effortless, charming and irresistibly endearing manner.
Shuri is like the “Q” to T’Challa’s James Bond. A scene in which she walks her big brother through her lab and introduces him to the newest gadgets is a set piece of perfect deadpan comedy in the middle of a gigantic action movie. I just loved it, and I loved Shuri, and we need to see more of her as the Marvel Universe continues to expand.
Even though Wakanda is a magical place, it exists in the “real world” of this story, on the same planet as the other locales for this story, from Oakland to London to South Korea to New York.
And even though Black Panther has sometimes awe-inspiring powers, we’re constantly reminded (as we are with Tony Stark/Iron Man) of the vulnerable human being inside the suit. Boseman is equally believable as the action superhero pulling off amazing feats and as a man grieving for his father, pining for his ex-girlfriend and wondering where his best friend’s loyalties lie.
“The Black Panther” has become something of a cultural touchstone even before its release. We have seen and heard countless stories and opinion pieces (and there are many more coming) about the significance of a black superhero leading a franchise, and the fact there’s a primarily African-American cast. In short time, this will become the most successful film in a number of categories.
All well and great. But on a pure pop level, as a piece of big-time mainstream entertainment, let us also celebrate this:
“Black Panther” is one of the best superhero movies of the century.
Marvel Studios presents a film directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. Rated PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture). Running time: 140 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.