★★★★½ out of 5 stars
The Black Panther character was first introduced into the Marvel Studios pantheon back in 1966. The launch took place in the comic book “Fantastic Four Vol.1” issue 52. So why did it take 52 years for that character to make its solo debut on the silver screen? Well, apparently it takes five decades to make a populous-loving, near-perfect Black Marvel film. And it is worth the wait.
Audiences got a taste for the newest incarnation of the character when T’Challa/Black Panther debuted in “Captain America: Civil War,” the saga in which Avenger characters battled against each other. With filmmaker Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) as its director and spiritual guide and a script he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, this Marvel chapter is decidedly and unapologetically Afrocentric — it’s all about the motherland and bit about urban America.
Upon the death of his father, the king of Wakanda, T’Challa, (Chadwick Boseman, “Get on Up,” “42”), the prince, comes home to the mythical and modern, high-tech metropolis hidden somewhere in Africa. To ascend to the throne, the heir must take on challengers in a public ritual, witnessed by his people. He does. As the new king, vested with superhuman powers, Black Panther is the protector of his nation.
In short time, he is pulled out of his comfort zone when he is asked to track down Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a South African illegal arms dealer, who is involved with dastardly American mercenary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The two have a precious Wakandan artifact, made of Vibranium, a powerful, mystical, precious metal that empowers the kingdom and was the foundation material for Captain America’s shield. The crooks intend to sell the relic to a CIA Agent (Martin Freeman). For some reason, Erik has an unbridled anger for T’Challa and his deceased father. He seeks their throne, which he feels is rightfully his.
The king is led into a dangerous Korean casino where the artifact purchase will go down. His guides are his love interest Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years A Slave”) who is a Wakandan international spy and Okoye (Danai Gurira, “The Walking Dead”), the fearless head of Dora Milaje, the Wakanda Special Forces. The success or failure of their mission holds a key to Wakanda’s future.
Coogler’s rich and dense script features a plethora of characters who have varied relations with the king: There’s W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”), head of security for the Border Tribe; Shuri (Letitia Wright, “Urban Hymn”), T’Challa’s tech wiz sister, who is also a scientist and inventor who supplies her brother with weapons and gadgets; M’Baku (Winston Duke, TV’s “Person of Interest”) leader of the Jabari Tribe, who once challenged T’Challa; and the Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett).
Once the plot and characters are set in place, the storyline winds its way through various countries, highlighting strong rivalries, a touch of romance and some comic moments. What’s different about this Marvel episode is that there are also themes that debate whether wealthy African countries should stay self-contained or become an active part of the diaspora and advocate for social and economic justice in other places. That’s not the kind of subplot or character motivation audiences will find in a Thor, Iron Man or a Captain America movie. Kudos to Coogler for being a courageous filmmaker able to handle social issues, as well as cartoon characters. Also, the dialogue can be very royal and serious or completely cheeky, like when Shuri offhandedly refers to the CIA agent as a “colonizer.” It’s a joke, but it’s not a joke.
As a writer/director, Coogler has firmly established that his strength is in creating and developing intimate relationships that capture the viewer’s attention. The innocent young man killed in “Fruitvale Station” and his mom were tight; the young boxer and elder pugilist in “Creed” had a strong bond too. Whether it’s the king and his sprightly little sister, his evasive lover or his archenemy, you never question the characters’ interpersonal dynamics. Also, the director has chosen a very theatrical ambiance. The pageantry is as thick as that in a Broadway play, and the actors seem to relish the grandeur.
The overall look of the film is exceptional, though you have to get used to the potpourri of styles and effects: At times scenes feels like a hip “Fast & Furious” episode (the car chases). Other times like “The Lion King” (with a sweet Disney-ish tone). There are scenes of African landscapes that look like they are from an Abderrahmane Sissako film (“Timbuktu”). The space age, high technology elements of the underground city-state resemble “Tron.” The warrior rhinoceroses seem like they’re straight out of “Jumanji” or “Jurassic World.” Some of the space travel and ships evoke “Star Wars.” That’s an observation, not a complaint. Though it would have been cool, if the footage looked completely different than anything audiences had ever seen.
The screen is ablaze with Africanesque costumes (Ruth E. Carter, “Selma”) and exotic sets (production designer Hannah Beachler, “Moonlight”; set decoration Jay Hart, “L.A. Confidential”). The beguiling musical soundtrack (Ludwig Goransson, “Creed”) and energized ultra-hip music (“All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA) are candy for the ears. The footage is perfectly lit (D.P. Rachel Morrison, “Mudbound”).
Boseman plays the stoic lead, and aptly balances vulnerability with an inner strength and determination. The overly confidant and scampish Letitia Wright as his sis, the brave beyond reason Danai Gurira and gorgeously beautiful Lupita Nyong’o are a joy to watch and far more animated. The male co-stars have charisma too: Jordan makes a fine, bitter villain. Kaluuya and Duke match warrior instincts quite well. Bassett and Forest Whitaker as Zuri represent a generation of wise elders with great dignity.
It took forethought, intelligence, social consciousness, an understanding of black history and great artistry to make one of the most anticipated films of the decade a success. Coogler and his crew don’t disappoint. This is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies ever made.
“Black Panther” is a vibrant, empowering allegory hidden beneath the cloak of a comic book movie, where most of the characters are Black, large and in charge.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.